If you’re struggling with self-harm, you’ve probably done a little bit of research already. You may even have read one of our other blog posts about self-harm, depression, anxiety, or addiction. Almost anywhere you can read about self-harm on the internet, you’re guaranteed to read the words “get help.” But it’s not that simple, is it? To get help, you have to talk to someone. To talk to someone, you have to know what to say. And this is one of those private, sensitive things that can be VERY difficult to put into words.
Or maybe you’ve told a friend, a counselor, or a teacher who’s now encouraging you to tell the people who need to know the most: your parents. But they are going to be the hardest people to tell, for many reasons! It’s even harder to know what to say when you’re worried about how they’ll react and what questions they might ask. Whether you’re close with your parents or not, it’s important to talk to them about your self-harm because, especially if you’re under 18, they can be an incredible resource to you as you try to heal. Let’s break down a few things you can say to them so that you don’t have to walk into this important conversation unprepared.
How to Bring Self-Harm up With Your Parents
It makes perfect sense if you don’t quite know how to start this conversation. First, try to give them some warning. This is not something you want to blurt out in the middle of dinner at Applebee’s. Both for your sake and for theirs, give them a chance to prepare themselves for an important conversation. How can you do that? Trying saying one of these things:
- “Mom/Dad, could we spend some time together later today/this week? I have something big I want to talk to you about.”
- “When you get home from work, can we talk for a bit? I need to tell you something important.”
- “Can we spend some time together later without our phones/computers/TV? I need your attention to talk about something big.”
Don’t be surprised if this freaks your parents out a little bit. Some parents might even try to push you to tell them what’s going on immediately, rather than waiting for the set time you’ve asked for. Understand that their sense of urgency just comes out of concern for you because they want to help you as soon as possible, and respond with something like this:
- “Sorry if that freaks you out, but I really need you to wait until I’m ready to talk about it. Can we talk later?”
- “If you keep pushing me to talk about it now, I’m going to lose the nerve to talk about it all. Let’s talk later like I asked.”
- “Thank you for being worried about me, but it’s really important to me that we talk about it later, when we’re both prepared. Can we set aside a specific time like I asked?”
Sometimes our parents know us better than we’d like to admit, and it may happen that they confront you about your cutting before you’re ready to talk to them about it. If they come to you and bring up the subject, here are a few things you can say:
- “Thank you for your concern. I get how this would make you worried. I’m not ready to talk about it. Can you give me a few days? Let’s set aside some time this weekend to talk.”
- “Please don’t force me to talk about this before I’m ready. I need your support right now, but this is really sensitive and private. Can you give me some time? I will come to you when I am ready.”
Now that you’ve let them know you need to have a tough conversation with them, it’s time to determine how you’re going to tell them.
Explaining the Situation
Cutting, and other forms of self-harm, are scary, especially to parents. There are a lot of misconceptions about cutters, namely that they are trying to commit suicide. If you are self-harming and suicidal, that’s an urgent matter that you should let your parents know immediately. Here’s how to tell them that:
- “I’ve been hurting myself, but the bigger problem is that I think I’m suicidal. I need your help and support.”
- “I’m really not okay. You need to know that I’ve been suicidal, and sometimes I hurt myself on purpose. Can we talk about getting me some help?”
If you’re reading this article and considering how to talk to your parents, you probably do want their help, but it’s perfectly normal to be afraid that sharing your self-harm or suicidality experiences with a parent or other adult may result in them trying to send you to the dreaded “psych ward,” but if that fear is holding you back from communicating your needs, it’s important to know that you don’t necessarily have to do inpatient treatment for self-harm or suicidal thoughts. For the most part, though, people who self-harm are not trying to kill themselves, and that will likely be an important piece of information to give your parents so that you can try to assure them that you are asking for outpatient help. Try introducing them to the basics of self-harm, then go into the specifics of how and when you engage in it. Try to remain calm, and feel free to use these words and fill in the blanks with the details that are true for you:
- “I’m not sure how much you know about self-harm, but it’s a prevalent issue among people my age. In fact, one in five females and one in seven males engage in self-harm. I am one of those people.”
- “The reason self-harm is so addictive is that it provides a temporary high. It triggers your body’s chemistry and causes reactions in the brain that cover up real physical pain. And self-harm causes real physical pain.”
- “I self-harm by [burning, cutting, biting, stabbing, etc.] and usually I do it [in the bathroom at home/school, in my room, in the car, etc.] [in the middle of the night, on my lunch break, first thing in the morning, etc.]”
- “I do it because [I’m so overwhelmed with my feelings, I feel empty, it helps me get rid of pain and stress, I’m punishing myself for something, etc.]”
- “I don’t know why I do it, but I can’t seem to stop.”
- “Self-harming makes me feel better. It makes the painful feelings disappear. The physical pain takes my mind off of any emotional pain I’m dealing with.”
Now take a deep breath. You’ve told them. It’s no longer a secret, and whatever their reaction is, you’ve made the first step toward recovery. You can either use this as a jumping-off point for sharing your struggle with others in your support circle, or you can rely on your parents to help you find treatment and healing.
Answering Their Questions
Sorry to tell you this part, but there’s almost no way you’re getting out of this conversation without your parents asking a few (or a million) questions. Be patient with them and with yourself. Even though these questions may feel invasive, remember that a parent who is asking questions is like a parent who cares. If you’re not ready to answer certain questions, you can always say something like this:
- “I’m really not comfortable sharing that with you. Maybe I will someday, but for now, I’d rather talk about something else.”
- “These questions are overwhelming me. I’ve already opened up to you in a big way. I’m not ready to open up about that.”
- “Could we find a counselor for me to talk to? I’m not feeling comfortable answering these questions with you yet, but I get why you’re asking them.”
- “If you have questions, can you please do some research? I’m really not ready to talk about this in detail yet.”
If you are okay with answering a few questions, it’s good to be prepared for what those questions might be. They may ask to see your scars or wounds from recent self-harm. They may ask what implements you use, when this all started, who else knows about it, why you do it, if something happened to you or if you’ve been abused, etc. It’s probably best to just answer these questions calmly and as a matter of fact. The more information your parents have, the better they can determine what kind of help they need to provide you. If they are still struggling to process the situation and understand what you are going through, encourage them to do some research of their own. You can offer them this resource as a starting point.
Asking For What You Need
The whole point of sharing this intimate information with your parents is to get your self-harm out in the open and take steps toward healing. Your parents should, and most likely will, want to do whatever they can to help you stop hurting yourself and recover from the emotional distress that causes you to self-harm in the first place. You deserve to have a voice in the conversation of how your family pursues getting help for you. Before this big conversation ends, make sure you explain to your parents what you need from them now that you’ve told them about your self-harm. There are a few different things you can say:
- “I know self-harm is bad, but I’m not ready to stop yet. I know that’s not a good sign, so I think I need some pretty serious, professional help.”
- “I don’t want to do this anymore, but I need help stopping. Can you take away my blades/lighters/needles? Can you check on me every once in a while to make sure I haven’t found new ways to hurt myself?”
- “Can you be there for me whenever I have the urge to hurt myself? Can I call you whenever I get the feeling so that I can be distracted and supported until the feeling passes?”
- “Can we go to family counseling to figure out why I do this and how we can fix it?”
These are only a few things you can ask for! Do your research and read up on ways people can go about their journey of healing from self-harm. You’re allowed to be well-educated about this and to ask for specific support you think will help you. Share the resources and research you find with your parents, too! The more you both know about the topic of self-harm, the better you can pursue healing together.
You’re Not Alone
Hopefully, this conversion with your parents will go better than you could have dreamed! Talking to them may be the beginning of healing, but it might also be the beginning of bonding with your parents in a deep, healthy, trusting way. If that’s not the case for you, we are so sorry. Unfortunately, but not uncommonly, our relationship with our parents may be toxic and even one of the reasons we self-harm in the first place. If you’ve tried to talk to them about self-harm, but it went terribly, or if you can’t approach your parents at all, there’s still help for you. Reach out to TheHopeLine today. We are here, and we want to talk to you. We can also connect you with resources who deal with self-harm recovery every day. There will be no judgment, no yelling, no finger-wagging… only support, love, kindness, and understanding. We have so many resources for you to explore, and we believe you are worthy of respect and healing!
Whether your parents are involved in your recovery or not, I’ll close with a personal story. I was a cutter for about two years during my time as a college undergrad. At the time, I did not feel comfortable sharing that with my parents, and they did not find out about my struggle until after I had begun healing. What helped me stop? An amazing counselor, a good psychiatrist, and some supportive friends, who never made me feel like I was dramatic, silly, or “too much” for needing their accountability and support. They reminded me daily that I was actually the daughter of a King, not the worthless twenty-something my unhealthy brain believed I was. Today I have been free from self-harm for nine years! That can be you too, babe. I promise.
Are you looking for ways to distract yourself from cutting? This checklist gives you 15 ways to resist the urge to self-harm.
Cara Beth Heath is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago, Illinois. She loves words and all the different ways they can come together to illuminate the world for us. All she wants to do is use her God-given word skills to bring light into dark places, and when she’s not doing that, she’s probably wrapped up in a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate watching a movie or playing Dungeons & Dragons… God loves nerds too!