Parenting to Stop Self Harming Behavior

Ok.  I promised I’d tell you how Maude, Watchful’s new therapist, wants us to handle his self harming.  It seems pretty strange, but it’s working so far.

To recap, 8-year-old Watchful has been hitting himself, injuring himself by throwing himself against hard objects, and discussing his plans for killing himself.

Maude says we need to demonstrate to Watchful that we can keep him safe, even from himself.  Easier said than done, was my first thought, thinking of a panicking child who is intent on hurting himself.

But actually, her method isn’t super hard.

1)  Project Calm and Confident Vibes.  When Watchful is hurting himself, the first step is to avoid showing we’re upset, worried, scared, or angry.  We are to remain calm.  We are to project confidence that we will be able to keep Watchful safe, even from himself.  Being calmly confident is probably the hardest part, but Maude suggests that continuing to repeat confident statements (see #3) will help us develop that inner calm during the most tense moments.

2)  Do Not Verbalize Undesired Behaviors.  If Watchful is punching himself, we should NOT say “don’t hit yourself” or “don’t hurt yourself.”  Why?  When a child is an agitated mental state, hearing the word “hit” or “hurt” can trigger the child to continue doing that action.

3)  Confidently State What Behavior  You Expect to See.  If Watchful is bending his fingers backwards, we should say “I am waiting to see safe hands” or “I am confident you will start being kind to your hands.”  If Watchful says he will kill himself, we should say “I am here to help keep you safe and I know we are going to get through these big feelings safely” or “I am really good at keeping kids safe and I am confident that you will soon calm down and choose to be kind to your body.”

Three steps to reducing self-harm.  Seems quite doable.  And so far, we’ve had occasion to try it out twice and it’s worked both times.  Yay!

4 thoughts on “Parenting to Stop Self Harming Behavior

  1. Really interesting post! I think I am definitely going to test out some of these techniques while working with some at-risk kids this summer. I think it could work for attention-getting behavior as well. Thanks for sharing it.


    1. Hi CMML. Glad to see you commenting again! Yes, I agree that these techniques could be helpful with attention-getting behavior — in fact Maude said to expect Watchful to do more self harming as a way to get attention. Let me know how this works for you this summer – and thanks for working with at-risk kids.


  2. I self harmed as a teenager, and reading about your and Watchful’s journey is so healing. Thank you for taking this issue seriously and treating him with such attention and respect. What a gift it is to have someone calm and confident in your life when you don’t feel calm or confident yourself. Praying for you both!


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