Parenting a self harming child

It’s hard to think that a child as young as 4 or 5 could be so ashamed of themselves (their actions, or even their identity) that they’d physcially harm themselves. But, it really does happen. And it really is hard to witness.

I don’t want to sit here and tell people how to deal with things, ’cause frankly, situations like this are all very individual… but I can say that what the person needs to feel is acceptance and not more shame. I have had input from various places, professionals included, that have stated that I need to make the child understands their behaviour is “wrong” and “naughty”. Surely, harm born of shame shouldn’t be shamed in such a way???

Well, I don’t care about what your training and qualifications are… that’s not for us, and it isn’t going to work here. Instead, we have greatly reduced the behaviour by identfying anxiety tiggers, and where possible removing them. That’s not to say we avoid things as such, but we do it on our terms, like going to the supermarket when everyone is at work/school. Also, by noticing times when anxiety will be higher and ensuring that, during these times, there’s a higher level of affectionate input, reassurance and comfort (and being extra vigilant).

Doesn’t solve it, but greatly reduces the frequency, and we are finding that with reduced frequency we also get reduced severity. That means that the child doesn’t feel shame as often (about these actions) which can quickly, and very easily, move toward becoming a downward spiral of self harming behaviour. And when situations do arise, it’s not met with anger, it’s met with acceptance. “Ok, Mumma can see you are struggling here, let me help. I am not cross with you, I am not upset with you. I love you and I want to help you if you will let me…” and then it goes from there.

We try to always (if feasible) get them into the bath. Warm water for comfort, familiar smells that we know they find comforting. Foaming bath soap that clings to them and stimulates feelings of gentle touch even after the hands have rubbed it on. Using a cup to gently rinse off the foam. Swaddling them like a baby in a soft fluffly towel after the bath, and cuddling and rocking them. Showing love and nurture, and overwhelming the body with feelings of gentle touch and nurture. Hopefully this need to hurt when feeling shamed can be associated with feeling nurture and comfort,,, and eventually the hurting part can fizzle out.

They are very much babies in older children’s bodies, handling adult level emotions without the world understanding, or emotional skills to process it properly. Sometimes not even the verbal skills. So how can we tell them they are wrong in their actions, they don’t even understand what they are doing? All they understand is this feeling (shame) is overwhelming them, and it’s horrible, and it’s making them feel horrible and they want it to go away. When this feeling has been treated with anger, or violence, by adults in the past then in their heads it’s the right thing to do… respond with anger or violence to themselves.

As a parent, who loves the child that’s so visibly torn, it’s draining to witness and be privvy to. But as the parent, how you suffer in this scenario is unimportant. As the parent, your pain at seeing your child hurt has to be pushed aside and filed under “to deal with later”. You have to be there how they need you, for however long. But as a supportive figure. Not authoritative. Not shaming.


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