Hearing your daughter hate on herself is one of the most painful experiences you can have as a parent. Perhaps you've heard your little girl criticize her body, call herself "stupid" or "weird," or complain that she'll "never be good enough." It can be heartbreaking to witness a young girl who is beautiful in her own unique way being so cruel to herself.
What's worse, the emotions behind her self-criticism, self-shaming and self-blaming can manifest as even more serious acts of self-harm. These may include cutting herself, burning her skin, excessive scratching, drinking or doing drugs, or practicing disordered eating. More subtle forms of self-harm are self-neglect, social isolation, negative self-talk, perfectionism, and emotional eating. These disturbing behaviours are on the rise among girls. According to Statistics Canada, the number of girls hospitalized for intentionally cutting or poisoning themselves has more than doubled in Canada between 2009 and 2014. Increasingly, girls are learning early to turn on themselves when life becomes challenging.
As hard as it may be to believe, self-harm can seem like an effective way to manage painful, uncomfortable emotions when a girl can't find the words to express herself, or feels she has no safe person to talk to. It can bring short-term relief from pent-up feelings, or at least allow her to feel numb.
It is something proactive she can do to grasp for control when her life feels chaotic, or distract herself from painful memories or life events. Tragically, girls sometimes feel they deserve the pain associated with self-harm, or may use it as retaliation for rejection or abandonment. It's the "I'll show them" weapon. Sound scary? It is!
It is something proactive she can do to grasp for control when her life feels chaotic, or distract herself from painful memories or life events.
Unequivocally, self-harm can have catastrophic consequences. A recent report by sociologists discovered there are online chat rooms where girls learn to harm themselves "better," leading researchers to assert that self-harm has shifted from a psychological disorder to a subverted subculture (Patricia Adler and Peter Adler, The Tender Cut: Inside theHidden World of Self-Injury (New York: NYU Press, 2011).
I explore self-harm, or self-injury (SI), in my book Growing Strong Girls, suggesting it's an external indicator of an internal struggle. All methods of self-harm are a cry for help and attention, and a sign of disconnection from the self.
In my coaching work, when I witness a girl being so darn cruel to herself, my instincts are to give her a big hug and urge her to love herself. But my experience has taught me that it's never as simple as giving advice and expecting to see instant change. Disconnection of any kind is complex, and the damage it does runs deep.
As a parent, your instinct is to protect your daughter from harm of any kind, but it's hard to know how to come to her rescue when she's the one hurting herself. However, I truly believe that with consistent and gentle nurturing, there is much we can do, both preventative and interventionist, to bring a girl back into connection with herself, lead her toward self-care, and even prevent self-harm from being an option. Here are some approaches to try.
Be empathic. When girls disconnect from themselves, there is always a reason, and we are much more likely to discover a girl's rationale when we show her understanding and emotional attunement. We need to try to "get" her and meet her where she is at. Focus on simple connection like a gentle hug, a soothing back rub, or a touch on the shoulder. She needs to feel your support. Try soft phrases such as, "I know this is hard for you. We are going to figure it out together" or "You are not alone. I am here for you."
Be nonjudgmental. It's all too easy to unintentionally enter into destructive conversations that contribute to disconnection or a break in the relationship. In parent workshops, I give examples of what disconnection sounds like. For example, "Are you listening to me?", "How many times do I have to tell you...", or "Why won't you talk to me?" These phrases may stem from your own frustration and the distance you may feel from your daughter, but they are also major barriers to connection. She'll hear judgment when she needs to hear acceptance.
Turn these phrases into more positive, engaging conversation starters. "Are you listening to me?" can become "Let me know when you are feeling settled and ready to chat with me." "How many times do I have to tell you..." can be, "Let's brainstorm ideas for keeping track of chores and responsibilities. I forget what I ask you, too." "Why won't you talk to me" can morph into "I want to hear about the details of your day; let's choose an activity to do together first."
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Be curious. Asking questions has always been my go-to strategy when working with a girl, because I need to hear about what's happening for her in her own words, instead of making assumptions based on my observations. We must dig deeper by paying attention to the "whole girl." To learn more about what it means to think about the "whole girl," see chapter four of my book, Growing Strong Girls. Inquire about all aspects of her life to gain a better understanding of her world: her emotional, physical, academic, and social self. How is she expressing herself? Who is she connecting with? Who is she disconnecting from? Is she getting adequate sleep, water, nutrition, and downtime? Is she finding balance, fulfillment, and purpose? These kinds of questions can really help us get a clear picture.
Help her with alternatives. Sometimes the best and only tool a girl has to feel better and gain control is to hurt herself. By providing her with alternatives, you can help her to reach for a healthier coping strategy when she experiences pain or discomfort. I am a big promoter of self-care. At the simplest level, this can include using lip balm for dry lips and lotion to soften and soothe skin, or using simple self-touch like rubbing her leg or clasping her hands together, a powerful way to calm the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. On a deeper level, we can teach girls to have a healthy emotional life — naming and exploring her thoughts and feelings, and expressing herself to people she feels she can trust.
Inquire about all aspects of her life to gain a better understanding of her world: her emotional, physical, academic, and social self.
We can also help her manage inevitable stress. This could mean facing and working through peer conflict, letting go of an unhealthy or toxic friend, or asking for help with schoolwork. If we can help her identify early signs of stress, such as butterflies in her stomach, a headache, or tightening muscles, we can also help her prevent dysregulation with deep breathing, relaxation techniques, exercise, or even creative activities such as arts and crafts, colouring, or music and dance. She cannot control extraneous life events, but she can learn to respond to them in a way that nurtures and supports her own well-being.
Self-harm is terrible to experience and also disturbing to witness. We may never fully comprehend why a girl would choose to turn against herself at the exact moment she needs to show up for herself the most. We also may not be able to eliminate this choice altogether. Yet I know from experience that it is possible to decrease the likelihood of self-injury, and possibly prevent it, with empathy, curiosity, and care.
*If you suspect your daughter or a girl you know is practicing self-injury, please contact a mental health professional for advice.
Lindsay Sealey is the author of Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years. She is also the founder and CEO of Bold New Girls and lives in Vancouver.
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