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.


That doesn’t feel right…

A very unusual thing happened this week… and I felt I needed to write about it. To have it documented in history.

I got to actually relax, not for 5 minutes. Not with a child attached to me. Not trying to do my own thing whilst a child is getting hugged for over an hour… but actually chill out WHILST still parenting.

I ran myself a bath, put in a couple of bath bombs, and told the children they were to play together in each other’s rooms. And they did… for 90 mins. No fighting, no rivalry, none of that whiny crap that you often hear when siblings are doing something remotely competetive; at one point they were definitely playing Frustration, but still all I heard were giggles and “sillys” (it’s what I call the giggly, non-sensical ramblings of children when they are having fun).

And then, when I got out of the bath, I ran them a bath, and got a load of their bath stuff: fizzers, bombs, foam, shower gel, flannels and got them to put swimming kits on and said “do what you want with that but use nothing else”. After 50 minutes of nice, giggly, happy, non-destructive play, it was me that had to end their bath time. Not them, not their behaviour. I was across the landing, again still listening to them, but gave them the space to feel independent. And I just lay on the bed, staring into nothingness.

So although I was still parenting, as in actually listening in, to supervise and intervene where I needed, I was actually relaxing too. I had no idea this could happen, to remain in parenting mode and actually just “chill” for quite an extended period.

It certainly helped make up for some of the sleep deprivation, but it also had the added benefit of increasing my tolerance, patience and self-awareness. I’m not all topped up by any means, but it’s a toe in the water as to what life could become; my children having independence and following some kind of boundaries without intervention, without negative consequences and with purpose, laughter and social skills.

Feeling proud. Feeling accomplished. Feeling hopeful.

Why won’t you just sleep? Please!!!!

So, one of the children has struggled with sleep from the outset, one of them has issues every now and again. And as they are both children who feel extra vulnerable at night time, due to the way their history has played out, they both find it extra hard to seek the help they need at night time… even if you hand it to them on a plate.

We are in an “enduring” period at the moment with both of them. One is on high alert, and with high alert comes their go to anxious response – self harm. So, that particular child is under supervision, or listened in on, 24/7 during those periods. So, one of us is always sat with them at bed time… The other, just not sleeping, and then by 4:30/5am getting fed up of just laying there, so making lots of fuss, fidgeting and generally refusing to allow anyone else rest (with many dramas in between having gone to bed and this ‘final showdown’).

Well, it reached a boiling point today, and we bascially refused to do anything until they gave in and actually slept for at least 30 minutes. They could sit and do nothing, or they could nap (food and toilet and drink obviously occurred). But I mean, we are a few years into this now, and this is continuous, and we have tried everything (including melatonin). Awaiting a sensory assessment from an Occupational Therapist who specialises in Attachment Trauma and the consequetional attachment related sensory issues that could prevail.

But we haven’t had that yet as social services took 18 months to assess us, to secure funding for the initial specialist assessment. And a further 3 months to get the appointment through, and get a written report published that said we need to have a specialist OT to assess us (don’t even go there). But that means this year’s funding has been allocated. However, we can’t go through NHS because it is the responsibility of the placing local authority to fund this type of assessment (and any following support) for 3 years after the final Adoption Order is processed. So we have to wait for the next financial year to be eligible to even apply for this assessment, let alone attend, get a report and secure any suggested therapy/advice/training.

So assuming other timescales, this could mean a 1+ year wait…  so if our response seems strong, or extreme, ask yourself if a child who’s not sleeping (not even really a solid hour per night) is at more risk by being told to rest for a day, or by running themselves ragged on hyper alert, over tired, over stimulated, under regulated and with exhausted parents and a very grumpy sibling to boot.

Anyhow, late afternoon… a nap was achieved and then low level and calm activity could take place. But not without first having a discussion. One about why today went the way it did. Why Mumma and Daddy want them to have adequate sleep – to rest, to help their brain have more focus, for their health, for growth and development. It didn’t seem to sink in, but then a child that hates themself, thinks they are evil and the cause of all problems really isn’t going to give two hoots about themselves at all really are they?

Some very long discussions later and then the question was asked.

“So, Mumma is not angry. Mumma is concerned. About you. But not just you… about me, Daddy and [sibling]. We all need rest. And we can’t help you until you are willing to accept the help. Don’t feel shame. Don’t cry to try and get out of this. Just tell me, how do you feel whilst you are lying there at night. What is it that is making you feel something that is stopping you from going to sleep?”

After a few tries to emotionally manipulate their way out of the situation and some firm, but reassuring, responses that we really don’t care how bad they think it is, we aren’t angry, or upset… just want to help. Something happened. Something that seemed genuine, and would make sense…

“it feels like part of my brain stops working. Like it is broken”,
“broken how, in what way”
“it just stops working and then I can’t use it. It is switching off.”
“do you mean you can’t respond to things?”
“yes, like if there’s a noise or something.”
“Ok. And is that scaring you?”
“Yes, because then I don’t know what’s happening”
“Ok, I understand. But do you know what? That means your brain is working, it needs to shut off from everything that is happening so that you can truly rest. I know it may not feel familiar and safe because night time used to be scary… but you aren’t broken.”

This provoked many tears. There was some acknowledgement and then some funny demonstrations of being hyper alert and being flat out exhausted (tongue out, drooling type). And then further discussion about being safe now, and not needing to listen anymore, and their body knows this which is why it’s trying to work, but it feels unfamiliar and that’s what’s scary – it’s not broken, just unfamiliar.

We have now put some steps in place: thought processes, self-led conversations etc. and then calling for help, reiteration we don’t care how many times we have to get up if it’s helping etc. Now we are (hopefully) one step further forward, and the fight isn’t “what is happening?” but rather “how do we help engrain the feeling of safety and help recognise there isn’t a danger that needs protecting from?”

We’re going to keep reiterating these steps, and also compliment it with aromatherapy (we have a doTerra emotional aromatherapy diffusing kit we have purchased in the hopes to come to aid our ability to promote moods), make extra sure that bed time routines are fixed and peaceful (and nurturing) and potentially find some soothing sounds to play over a speaker to complete the soothing and safe atmosphere (and hopefully distract from the knocks of the heating and creaks of the house).

Slowly these walls are being taken down, even if it’s one brick at a time and we are removing 6 bricks and adding 2 back on. But it’s moving forward. And as a parent of a traumatised child, that’s a win you not only take, but celebrate!




It’s not a competition!!!

I really struggle with how competetive people seem to think life is.

The whole idea of pitting kids against each ther in school. development and achievements. The competivity between parents/carers of “oh, well ‘x’ was doing that by the age of ‘y’…”. These aren’t anything to do with ensuring your child gets credit for what they are doing. This is about the parents saying “check out my parenting skills”… “this is what I did…”. And this is bad enough, but when someone is struggling, rather than having empathy there seems to be a need to display how their problems aren’t as big as your problems.

We are human, things happen we struggle, we vent, we get down. But is that a reason to be all “well, I don’t know why you’re moaning… everyone has issues and quite frankly mine are worse”?

I don’t think it is. I think it’s about time the parenting community just stop with this idea of better and worse. Not least because it doesn’t example good behaviour to the kids, or consider that everyone is different… but also because really, what does it achieve? Do you feel better putting someone down? Does it make the person feel better? Does it solve any issues? Nope, I can’t say that it does.

When I see people going through it this is my contingency:

  1. Is there anything I can do to help?
    • Yes – offer the help
    • No – go to point 2
    • Perhaps, I  am not sure – tell them you are there and ask if you can do anything to help
  2. Would it feel awkward, like you are just being nosey, if you were to tell them you are there for them?
    • No – well tell them then, don’t downplay their problems, don’t say “it’s normal” or “it’ll pass”, offer them something supportive and tell them you know you can’t help, but you are there if they need you.
    • Yes – just shut up and pass on by…

You can’t help in every circumstance, that’s for sure. But what is certain is that you have a choice to not make someone feel worse.

Even if you think you know what someone is going through, consider that you don’t and be kind. Just remember that suffering and endurance really are relative experiences. And just because you have travelled the same path, doesn’t mean you’re carrying the same weight, experiencing the same weather conditions, fighting with the same energy and motivated with the same levels of support.

Let’s stop this hate. Let’s stop this judgement, this competition, this downplay of suffering, this isolation. And let’s instead spread compassion and unity and empathy and empowerment.