Walking Through Darkness With Your Teen - Part 3

A few things we've learned and what we would like others to understand:

This happens to normal families.  I don't know what I was expecting, but the families in our Intensive Outpatient Program were normal, caring, intact families.  Through this process, I've become less judgmental of parents who have what appears to be a difficult teen.  I'll add that these were all families willing to put in some serious time commitment and work to help their teens and themselves heal and improve.  This DBT group was not court-mandated, but completely voluntary. We were honored to share life with these families during the 7-week program.

Parents can't discipline or force their kids into mental health.  We as parents have had to become very aware of behaviors that are simply typical teenage rebellion, which result in discipline, or behaviors that occur because our teen truly does not know how to respond appropriately or how to manage a particular emotion she's having.  For example, we would give a consequence for our kids sneaking out of the house to see friends, but not for engaging in a "target behavior" (self-harm, isolating, etc.).  At first, that was tough for me.  I was treating my teen more like a toddler.  When my kids were toddlers and threw a fit in the store because they wanted a toy, I would not get them the toy.  When my teen first engaged in her target behaviors, I wanted to think the same say: She's behaving badly, so I won't give her the attention she wants.  I can tell you, that doesn't work. If your kid self-harms, taking away their means has also proven to be ineffective.  The first time this idea was presented to me, I bawled. I couldn't accept it.  It was the most counterintuitive thing I had ever been told to do...or not do.  But it's been effective for us. If you are intrigued, as I was, by that idea, read and then click the selection below. Also, please consult a therapist regarding any of this; I am a parent and layperson just sharing our family's experience.

  • Responding to underlying distress is more important than focusing on stopping the self-harm. Excessive control and the removal of implements may make things worse. [Read more here]

My teen is doing well, but that doesn't mean she's "all better."  DBT calls it shaping.  Just like a sculptor doesn't instantly turn a piece of rough stone into a David statue, we won't change in an instant. So we make small, progressive steps.  For a child that engages in self-harm, that may mean that you notice she tries a few different coping techniques, then still engages in self-harm.  You could see that as failure and feel defeated or you could acknowledge that the attempt to cope in other ways is progress.  Then next time, maybe your teen comes to you and tells you they are at risk, tries some coping, has a long, drawn-out crying and anxiety fit, then eventually calms down.  You could focus on the stressful event, or notice that the teen took the more difficult route of coping without self-harm, which has historically given them the quickest relief.  Instead of punishing the freak-out, you applaud the fact that the teen came to you, then used a lot of patience and skill to suffer through the feelings rather than resort to self-harm.  Eventually, over time, little-by-little, the child will sculpt something beautiful. 

In our family, we constantly refer to the "wave."  The tough moments come in waves.  Back in April, the waves were frequent and the swells were high.  As time passes, with therapy and practice, the waves are further apart and the swells don't peak at such an overwhelming height.   

My teen isn't in a constant state of despair.  Just because a teen is fighting with her mental health doesn't mean she is always sulking, angry, or suicidal.  Remember the waves?  It's like that on a daily basis.  

Some days are really, really, really tough.  Just use thesaurus.com to search  "despair" and those are the feelings you'll have some days.  In those moments, it feels like nothing will help. Prayers seem to float into empty space; hope is not a word you can understand; you don't believe it will ever get better.  But it will get better. Admit your hopelessness, keep talking to God even if you feel it's returning void, and remind yourself that it will get better, even if only for a moment here and there.

Suicidal doesn't equal "dangerous to others."  Because my teen is fighting suicidal thoughts doesn't mean she's dangerous or poses a risk to anyone other than herself.  Certainly, there are kids who struggle with anger and lashing out.  This is not the case for most teens who are depressed, nor is it the case for all teens who are in treatment.

There is no shame in getting help!  The more you seek out help, the more you'll realize just how many people struggle.  We've been met with 99% positive support.  We've gained a network of friends and professionals who offer a plan and safety net for our family.  From the doctors and social workers, to family and friends, people have been our lifeline.

How does faith fit in?  If you're a follower of Christ, how does your faith and relationship with God fit in to this?  I'll share my brief opinion: Lean on your personal faith in your thoughts and behaviors. Find time to read scripture and talk honestly with God.  Do not quote scripture to your teen while the waves are high.  Just like you wouldn't say to parents who just lost a child, "Well, God works all things for good," (Gaaah!! Some people have actually done that!) you also don't want to tell your teen, "If you just had the faith the size of a mustard seed..."  Tread carefully with your teen in this area and ask God for wisdom regarding what to say and when to keep your mouth shut.

The more I write, the more I want to add, but I'm going to stop here.  Hopefully, my rambling will give you some ideas and encouragement. 


  1. Thank you for this series of posts. As a recovered self-harmer, I wish I would have had resources like this when I was in crisis. I have self-harmed in invisible places and visible places, I have been suicidal, and I have felt the despair that I would never overcome my challenges. Living with a chronic pain management disorder and other factors I won't detail here that made me feel different or sometimes unaccepted, I often felt hopeless as a result. I chose to battle my illness alone, without telling my parents, only sharing my crises with my two best friends and my now boyfriend. I call myself a 'recovered' self-harmer because I don't believe these issues go away. I don't agree with the commercials that say "I used to be an addict (self-harmer, suicidal, etc.), now I'm not". It will always be a part of me, and though I am now stable, I accept that I could slip back into that dark place in a heartbeat. I've taught myself healthy coping mechanisms now when things go wrong. But self-harm is an addiction, just like alcohol, drug, or food addiction, or any other addiction.

    I am glad your teen has such a strong support team behind him/her! It is so special when parents are able to be actively involved in their children's lives, realise there is an issue, and be able to help their children cope with a difficult situation. My parents were busy working full-time jobs, and me being an only child, I spent a lot of time alone after school, feeling like I couldn't bother my parents with my problems because they were so busy. Being an only child was lonely, but it also taught me to seek help when trying to solve problems. Even if I wasn't asking my parents, I was asking friends who had been through similar struggles or sifting through google answers as to why I was feeling so bad and what to do to help myself cope. I would probably, however, have been able to more effectively cope if I had just told my parents and not worried about whether I would be bothering them with my problems. So thank you, again, for sharing your family's journey with your teen through self harm. I wish you nothing but success. Your teen will overcome this, and your family will come out on the other side stronger. You are taking many steps in the right direction - kudos!

    1. @axisboldaslove Thank you SO much for sharing your story. My teen reads these as well, so it's encouraging for all of us. I totally agree with your perspective on recovering. It's a process. That helps us keep a better focus on progress and not perfection. I'm glad you've been able to find ways to cope. Thumbs up!

  2. I want to offer this encouragement to your daughter and to you and Ken: It gets better. Soo much better. I am in my early 30s now. I still take anti-depressants and probably always will, but my life is so much better than it was back in my pre-teen and teen years. And my med dosages are about 25% of what they were as a teen.

    I would say the real turning point was when I was about 22 to 24. I think an awful lot of it was biological. My hair started getting curly when I was about 10 years old. That's also when depression started getting its grip on me. I started losing my curls at about 24. The depression has gotten much more manageable since then too. Funny how those things work, but it leads me to think hormones probably play a huge role in it in my case.

    In my case, college was also a pretty stressful and lonely experience. I missed out on a lot of social skills development when I was dealing with severe depression in middle and high school. It was hard for me to make friends in college. (This was before Facebook. Funny enough, having Facebook around by the time I started grad school made a huge difference in helping me make friends, learn where the parties were, get invited to things, etc.)

    In any case, that's my story with depression. The farther I get from those awful teen years, the smaller the role depression has in my life. It will always be there, but if I take my meds and practice decent self-care, it's easy to forget about it. It has become less and less of who I am. So hang in there-- all of you!

    1. r, It means a lot that you share your story. I'm glad to read about what helped you and still helps you cope. My teen is reading your comment, too, so thanks so much for sharing.

  3. Thank you so much for publishing this. When I was a young teen and told my own mother about my self-harm, her response was identical (almost verbatim) to your original response. Reflecting on that used to make me angry at her for her callousness, but your own honesty about your reaction and insecurities just now helped me understand why she reacted the way she did. Growing up with severe undiagnosed ADD and parents whose own mental health issues caused swings of abusive behavior towards me and my siblings was hard, and although my ADD was discovered and treated in middle school, I didn't get the mental health help I needed until college. I am now a senior at an Ivy-league University; I love and am loved by my friends, I struggle with the normal stresses of school and find joy in (most of) my classes, I successfully manage my anxiety disorder and depression (albeit some weeks less successfully than others), I practice coping mechanisms, and I see a therapist regularly for support. This is just to say that the teenage years are tough, and finding coping strategies and maintaining good mental health during the teen years is especially tough. But you are tougher. For you and your family, some days, weeks, or months are better or worse than others. Sometimes you will be in the middle of a tunnel or the bottom of a well, and it it ok to stay there until you feel that you can come out. Please remember to be patient with yourself, to make time for self-care. This is but one stop on your journey. This experience is tough, and even though it can make you feel vulnerable and fragile, you will emerge a stronger, deeper, and richer person because of it.


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