As a rule, I try not to make gross generalizations based on my own experience. But I think it is safe to say that for most, if not all, parents, one of their worst fears is their child coming to harm. The situations and people who can cause harm to your child—whether accidentally or on purpose—are too numerous to count, let alone comprehend..
And then there is self-harm.
I am uncomfortable, and unsure, about the level of detail to reveal. I believe that the full story is my son’s to tell. I will say that over a period of about two years—fortunately, very occasionally in comparison to many of his peers—my son chose to take out his sadness, negative self-feelings, and rage, and attack not the perpetrators, but the victim: himself. His own body.
In over 10 years of parenting, nothing has come remotely close to the kick in the gut experienced—daily, hourly, sometimes more often—during this period. It was the most of the seven stages of grief—the ones before acceptance—coupled with terror, coupled with self-recrimination and guilt. It didn’t matter that the deep-seated causes of his pain happened, almost certainly, years before he first walked through my door. It didn’t matter that every parenting workshop, advice book, and mentor trumpeted the line “Good enough is good enough—you do not need to be perfect” over and over.
All that mattered was that my little boy was a victim of repeated attacks. And that, out of deep buried pain and shame, he was the perpetrator.
The reactions were, to me, astounding. His school—the one that trumpeted the line over and over to incoming parents, “Trust your kids to us during their time here. We will hold them.”—threatened to kick him out. (For what it’s worth, they did eventually kick him out, for an entirely unrelated reason.) The then-therapist told him, in front of me: “I’m not going to tell you not to do this behavior. If you want to do it, go ahead and do it.”
Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly the message I wanted to communicate.
It did reach a point where I finally said: “As your dad, I can’t see that loving you means just sitting here watching you hurt yourself and not trying to do anything about it. But if you tell me, ‘Dad, yes, the way to show you love me is to just let me do this, and not try to stop it or come up with alternatives or anything,’ then I promise I will.”
I think that conversation (maybe) helped. Something about giving him the power to define the loving action made him, I think, see that having a dad who sat back and did nothing might not feel so good after all.
In any case, that interaction seemed to mark the start of a turnaround. With the help of some very wonderful people and the good thoughts and prayers of many more, my son did get past that period. My own internal “recovery” took a while longer, but I was eventually able to move past “constant vigilance” mode, looking for danger signs. If any of the “wonderful people” is reading this, I can’t thank you enough.
The experience of trying to find the authentic path to caring for my child also reinforced for me the importance of self-care. Current and future parents, lesson learned: When you are centered, and grounded, and calm, you can be present in a way that is simply not possible when “life” takes over. Engaging in self-care, whatever that looks like for you—nights out, vacations, naps, “grown-up time,” it doesn’t matter—not only helps you stay calm in the face of crisis. I firmly believe it may be one of the most effective ways of helping prevent crisis in the first place.
Your kids inherently love you, and you love them. Most kids are pretty good at loving themselves, however battered and bruised that might appear. Make sure parent loving self is part of that equation.