Rena Perlmutter

Parenting a Child Who Is Suffering From Mental Illness/Self-Harming

Parenting a Child Who Is Suffering From Mental Illness/Self-Harming

Congratulations on the birth of your daughter or son! Instantly, you begin to look forward to sharing certain milestones that this child will achieve with your friends and family members. Every parent knows that parenting can be challenging. Little children have their little problems, like sleepless nights and terrible twos, while big children bring bigger problems. Adolescents present their unique parenting challenges, but they eventually grow up and move into adulthood. However, one aspect that often goes unspoken is mental illness. When parents receive a mental illness diagnosis for their child, they often feel isolated and very alone, afraid to talk about it.

For some parents, a diagnosis comes as a relief because now their child’s behavior has a name. They can research it and start to understand their child’s behavior better. For others, it comes as a shock because they did not know their child was so unhappy that they began to engage in self-harming behaviors and have suicidal thoughts.The Mayo Clinic defines self-injury as the deliberate act of harming one’s own body. Nonsuicidal self-injury, often referred to as self-injury, is a harmful way to cope with emotional pain, sadness, anger, and stress.

Family involvement is especially important for adolescents in recovery. The involvement of a family member or significant other in an individual treatment program can strengthen and extend treatment benefits. The message that a parent conveys to their child during this challenging time is one of belief in the child. Even when the child has sunk deep into the disease of self-harming and no longer believes in himself, it is essential for a parent to continue portraying love and belief in their child.

When parents need to toilet-train their children, they often seek guidance from books, friends, or relatives. There is a protocol of do’s and don’ts for toilet training; for some children, it comes easier than for others. When a parent notices that their child is struggling with toilet training, there is no shame in seeking help from friends and relatives. However, when a parent is told that their child is self-harming, they are often met with feelings of shame and guilt. There are no books titled “How to Parent a Child who is Suffering from Mental Illness,” as it is not a typical part of child development and was not on any parent’s list of milestones to be achieved.

According to recent studies by the McLean Institute, approximately 17% of adolescents and around 15% of college students in the United States have engaged in some form of self-injury on at least one occasion. Statistics show that self-injury rates are similar in other countries. Self-harming is used as a means to regulate strong emotions or as a way to hide from distress.

While self-injury may momentarily provide a sense of calm and relieve physical and emotional tension, it is typically followed by feelings of guilt, shame, and the return of painful emotions. Life-threatening injuries are not usually the intention, but more severe and even fatal self-harm is possible.

.Anorexia is a typical example of self harming that leads to serious health problems and at times leads to death. The exact cause of anorexia is unknown, but biological, psychological, and environmental factors influence it. Transitions can also be a triggering factor. Changes such as switching schools or going through a breakup can lead to a person ceasing to eat. According to the Mayo Clinic, emotional stress can contribute to anorexia.

Self-harming behavior typically emerges during adolescence. While mood swings are considered normal during this stage due to body changes and hormone production, intense and persistent feelings of anger should be evaluated by a professional to determine if assistance is necessary. Parents should not dismiss signs of stress, such as changes in their child’s behavior, isolation, sudden loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, or persistent depression. These signs should not be brushed off as typical teenage behavior. Parents should express concern and say, “I’ve noticed that you’re not acting like yourself. Would you like to talk? I love you and want to help.” If you notice marks on your child’s body from cutting or burning, inquire if they are considering harming themselves. Seek professional help immediately before it’s too late. Your child may not be suicidal, but they need guidance on how to manage intense emotions, especially if there is a family history of mental illness or if they have experienced trauma or the loss of a loved one.

If your child admits to having thoughts of suicide, offer them support and thank them for their honesty. Ask how you can assist him and create a list of people that he can call whenever they need help. Remove any pills or objects that could be used for self-harm. If necessary, supervise your child around the clock until a psychiatrist can evaluate him. Reassure your child that they are not alone, that you love him and that you are there for him. With the guidance of a therapist, they can learn to build a happier life. He deserves a better life. If the psychiatrist recommends medication, remember that there is no need for guilt or shame; medication is a tool to help a person lead a happier life.

Just as a diabetic has a disease and follows a protocol for maintaining their health, a person engaging in self-harm can acquire tools to learn how to lead a healthy life. Sometimes, medication is necessary to help regulate your child’s condition. The world does not judge a diabetic for taking insulin, and there is no shame in using psychiatric medication. Medication is prescribed to aid in one’s healing process.

The first step is to become an informed parent. Educate yourself and learn about the disease. Speak with your family doctor and psychiatrist, and ask for resources that will help you understand your child. There are many forms of self-harm, including drugs, alcohol, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and cutting, all of which can contribute to mental illness. Educate yourself; knowledge is power.

It’s not easy, and there may be periods of relapse, but there is a solution. Many people have successfully stopped self-harming.

To be continued

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Rena Perlmutter, parent coach at

About the Author
Rena Perlmutter is a mother of 5. Originally from California, she has lived in Beit Shemesh for 25 years. With a Bsc in Education, a Ministry of Education Parenting Coach certification, Rena combines DBT and twelve steps in her practice. Rena specializes in coaching parents of teens who are struggling with mental health issues and substance use disorders.