5 Ways You Can Help Your Teen Cope When Their Friends Are Cutting

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Teens Helping Teens: Coping With Peer Self-Harm

BY DR SARAH HUGHES

As a clinical psychologist, I do a lot of work with teens who cut themselves to cope with overwhelming emotion. It never stops being concerning to me that teens turn to self-harm to cope, but I see it so often that it no longer shocks me.

Is your teen a crisis counsellor?

Is your teen a crisis counsellor?

What does shock and unnerve me is that due to the prevalence of cutting in teens, teens today are nearly as familiar with self-harm as I am. If they’re not cutting themselves, they know someone who is, or they have a close friend who’s doing it.

Teens are more likely to turn to their friends than their parents or a trusted adult, which means that at some point, your teen is likely to get a text or call from a distressed friend who wants to hurt themselves.

It’s a scary position to be in, and despite their familiarity with self-harm, few teens are prepared to cope with a situation like this. As a parent, you wouldn’t be alone in admitting that you’d feel equally unsure how to approach a situation like this, especially if you don’t know the other child’s parents.

Here’s what you can do to help your teen cope.

Tip #1: Avoid Forbidding Contact

Seeing your teen distressed over their friends self-harm will make you want to tell them to walk away from the friendship and cut contact with their friend all together. Try not to act on this urge. If you do, your teen may well do the opposite of what you’ve suggested just to prove that they can make their own decisions. Worse than this though, it could mean your teen won’t feel they can come to you when they really need your help and advice.

Tip #2: Help Your Teen Have Realistic Expectations

As much as your teen may want to fix their friends hurt, there’s only so much they can do. Accepting this and understanding these limits will help to take the pressure off. Your teen can be a good friend by helping their friend have a break from their problems for a while, whether by doing something fun together or chatting about things that are completely unrelated to whatever it is that’s making their friend upset. Your teen can also help their friend by listening. Just remind your teen that being a good listener doesn’t mean fixing everything – feeling heard is often all we need to feel better.

Tip #3: Get Other People Involved

It might seem obvious to you that your teen needs to tell someone what’s going on, but it won’t be as obvious to your teen. They’ll feel conflicted about whether they should break their friend’s confidence to make sure they’re safe and will need your help making a decision about this.

Try not to jump in and contact people without your teen’s permission – this could be a recipe for disaster and should only be done as a last resort. Instead, have a conversation with your teen about what they think they should do. Ask your teen to tell you all their reasons for wanting to tell someone at school or their friend’s parents, and all their reasons against this. Give your teen your full attention and really listen to what they say. Validate your child’s concerns, then ask them to consider which is more important – knowing their friend is safe and is getting the help they need, or knowing that their friend isn’t mad with them.

Tip #4: Help Your Teen Know Their Limits

The safety procedure on a plane is this: if you ever get into trouble, put your own oxygen mask on first before you start trying to help others. Why? Because if you don’t take care of yourself first, you’re not going to be in a position to look after anyone else. It’s a good rule for life in general. It’s important that your teen understands that if they start to feel stressed or overwhelmed by what their friend is telling them, it’s a sign that they need to take a step back and look after themselves before they can resume helping their friend. This might mean having a break from social media and texting for a week, or scheduling time to do the things that help your teen to feel happy and relaxed.

Tip #5: Have An Emergency Contact

If you don’t have contact details for your teen’s friend’s parents, see if you can get them from another parent (avoid telling the other parents the real reason why you need the number) or else contact the school psychologist and ask them to speak to the teen’s parents on your behalf to ask if they would mind passing on their contact details in case of an emergency. Knowing you have these details will help your teen feel less distressed because it will allow you to easily contact parents in the event of any distressed texts of phone calls.

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Think Clinical Psychologists. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and adults, and specialises in anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and challenging behaviour.


 

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