Are They Hurting Themselves?

Updated: Jan 5

I remember the first time I figured out one of my kids was self-harming. My body moved, but really I was just there as a spectator. Luckily, my body did the right things and reacted in the right ways to help my child. I’m grateful the mama bear in me popped out when she was most needed. I realize she might not be there consistently, or for other people in that moment. Some people might have a broken mama (or papa) bear. I can’t imagine my life going differently once it was all out in the open. 

I want to start by saying, IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT.” If you’re like most parents, you feel personally responsible for literally every act your child does. For me, when my kid fucks up, that’s on me. I do my best to teach them and correct them, but for whatever reason, they did it, and I didn’t prevent it. Super unrealistic, I know, but that’s where my head goes. Either I didn’t teach them the skill to get out of a situation, I didn’t emphasize or differentiate why that act would be a mistake if chosen, I didn’t outline consequences, or wasn’t there when they needed me. You know, the typical parent internal monologue. ...Right? 

It was a huge struggle for me to accept the fact that their self-harm was not my fault. They were going through things that I couldn’t understand, things they felt that they couldn’t talk to me about, things they felt they couldn’t talk to anyone about. It was hard for me to finally come to grips with the fact that they had lives outside of the life we lived together. From this moment on, there were always going to be things I didn’t know about, or didn’t understand. This was the time where I got “old”, and stopped getting all the slang. 

Once I accepted that my children were tiny human beings and not these extensions of myself, I really began to understand the complexities of each child. It feels stupid to talk about. It feels common sense that each child is their own person, with their own thoughts and feelings. This truly was an epiphany for me. Ok, I might be alone here, that’s ok. 

My daughter was showing me all the red flags

I needed to see to get me to wonder and, well, google symptoms, though I didn’t know that’s what they were at that point in my life. 

She had changed her “look”,

For starters. Previously she had been the gangly little mismatched girl. She traded out her fluorescent wardrobe for shades, oversized hoodies, and beanies, and had her step-mom cut her bangs. You know the kind, the ones that cover half your face. She was consistently compared to Violet from The Incredibles. 

I thought it was hormones and her trying to find herself. She stopped doing the fun things and opted to sit out to watch. 

She was really closed down.

She usually sat with her arms crossed and her knees closed tightly together with her feet drawn up as closely as the chosen seated position allowed. Sometimes, to where her knees would mostly cover her face, so all you saw was curls, beanie, one eye, and boney kneecaps. I had a no-picture self-conscious phase. 

I thought she was having one too, more severely. 

Hygiene changed tremendously

I found clumps of hair around the house, think - just got done brushing the dog - clumps. More than normal, mind you. In a houseful of Mexican-American females, lots of shedding takes place. 

I thought the seasons were affecting her because she’s more Mexican than I am. 

When she had cuts or bruises, she would brush it off.

Say she hurt herself accidentally, or that someone else had done it to her. It started with her friend scraping her with a push tack. 

I was clumsy and raised in Montana, she had a similar upbringing. Bumps and bruises were normal in my childhood, why wouldn’t they be in hers? 

She didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up.

She didn’t talk about the future, or have the typical desire to be big and independent already, though she didn’t want to be dependent, either. 

She is adopted and has some trauma in her background. I thought she might be having a hard time trusting and adjusting due to that.

She wasn’t comfortable in her skin.

After puberty, she didn’t want to do the things that showed her body. She wore too-big clothing, and sat out of activities where she had to take her clothes off. There were times where we would have family swim days and she would sit on the edge in pants, a hoodie, and a beanie watching in the hot ass pool room while we all had fun. 

I thought she was hyper-critical of her body, or was hating the attention she was getting from her blooming body. She never liked the spotlight, and Mexican bodies definitely take definition through puberty. I got it. Or so I thought. 

I thought I was being the understanding and cool mom by letting her sit out, by letting her find her own way with her style choices. What I missed, was that while independently these are all signs of a normal, healthy, growing teenager, collectively they are signs of trouble brewing. 

Everything Explained

The dark style that took color out of her wardrobe and brought her hair over her face was to hide. She didn’t want to be noticed. Leaving middle school and going into high school she didn’t want to be in the forefront. She didn’t want to be asked to join clubs or to engage.

She was depressed and didn’t want her world being touched by anyone, because they would probably just fuck it up more. While also being lonely and wishing someone got her. Wishing someone could step into her world and not fuck it up for once.

Her body language closing up the way it did is also to minimize and detract attention, but moreso, it’s a protection thing. If you’re in a ball and you can see everyone around you, but they might not even notice you, you’re safer. If people don’t engage with you, you don’t get hurt. If you don’t look approachable, people don’t engage with you.

The hair, still unsure of. I will probably find out when I ask her permission to post this, but in my research, I found out it could be a sign of trichotillomania, which is hair pulling. A common self-soothing technique is to play with your hair. After learning about it, I noticed this is one I use all the time.

Why it Makes Sense to Them, but Not Us

Like all good things, too much is a bad thing. A self-soothing technique can turn into a disorder when you start pulling it to feel a little bit of pain to relieve whatever emotion you’re feeling. Doesn’t sound like something that makes sense when spelt out like that on paper to a health minded-person, but when you’ve experienced that much emotional pain, anything to get out of it is a reprieve. I get it, but it’s an unhealthy way to handle emotional pain. The hoodies and excuses were to hide the experiments she was playing with pain. 

What happens Once you know?

After I did my research, and had a direction to go in for the possible problem, I still wasn’t confident. I wasn’t sure of my convictions. I wasn’t absolutely positive she was hurting herself, I just had a good idea. I was fearful of how she would react when I confronted her. I was terrified it would damage our relationship. When it came down to it, as afraid as I was, my fears didn’t really matter. My baby girl did. Even if she hated me for the rest of her life, if I could get her help, the rest of her life might be longer. 

I’m sure for her, it came out of the blue when I asked her to go put on shorts and a tank top. It has been many years now, and my memory isn’t quite photographic, but I believe it was in the colder months when shorts and tank tops should be tucked in the back of drawers, or closets and forgotten. Being the defiant little shit that she was in her early teenage years, she fought me on it. I wouldn’t tell her why, but I told her I would meet her down in her room in 5 minutes. I started the timer when she got to her room, prompted by the stomping all the way down, and the slamming of the door upon her arrival. 

I watched the clock, because 5 minutes felt like 5 years. It probably felt like seconds to her, but for me, it was one of the most painful waits I have endured. I had fought with myself so much leading up to this, but it didn’t pale in comparison to reality crashing in with a 5 minute countdown. If you could accurately capture that feeling with film, every suspense director would hire you instantly. 

Every stair down was miserable. I can’t remember how many there were now, but I always count stairs. Each and every one took total focus on each and every muscle required to descend. It was painful and excruciating. She met me at the door when I knocked. She was standing behind it, like she was still undressed. 

“May I come in?”

I don’t remember anything else that was said, because it was like entering a vacuum when I stepped into her room. All sounds were cut out. I couldn’t hear the hum of the house, the steps of her siblings, or even my own breath. I could feel it catch in my chest when I saw her legs, though. They had old and new scars all over her thighs. They weren’t deep, it was clear they weren’t designed to end a life, but there were many. Even with my failing memory, I will never forget the pain I saw scribbled on her skin in scars, or the shame written on her face. I don’t know how long I held her, but she had to pull away. 

Other signs to look for: 

  • Blood stains on bedding, clothes, towels, or tissues.

  • Engage in risk taking behaviors.

  • Apathetic about things they normally take interest in. 

  • Express intense feelings of worthlessness.

  • Emotionally distant, don’t engage in conversation.

  • Express hatred/disgust for their body.

  • Socially withdraw/isolate for long periods of time.

  • Numb/unphased by things they normally wouldn’t be. 

  • Sharp objects in places they don’t belong.

  • Constantly overwhelmed (think under water and can’t find a way out). 

  • They feel like they’ve made a huge mistake. 

  • They feel like they deserve punishment for something. 

  • Experience dissociation.

  • Visible scars.

  • Highly impulsive/unstable behavior. 

If someone you know is showing these signs, please provide a “safe space” to check in properly. If you believe they’re “at risk” please seek a support service for professional guidance.

Check back in for subsequent posts detailing how to help people in crisis.

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