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How to Help an Adopted Child who Cuts or Burns


faitha's picture

By faitha - Posted on 05 March 2008

As I shared in my last post, Adopted Child and Self-Injury: Cutting and Burning, the adopt child who cuts or burns herself typically has a difficult time expressing her emotions. Teaching your adopted child how to express her emotions is the best way to help her stop cutting or burning herself. Of course, this is much easier said than done.

Children who cut or burn themselves often have deluded themselves into believing that they have no need to feel. With feelings comes pain, so they shut everything down. They need you, as their adoptive parent, to show them that shutting down all feelings means that they are missing out on feeling many positive things. Until the child chooses to begin feeling her emotions, the odds of you stopping the cutting or burning behavior are low.

Once the child has made the choice to risk feeling, your child will need you to help him identify what each feeling is. While feelings and emotions are probably obvious to you, they are foreign territory to your child. You need to have multiple conversations about what anger is, what it feels like, and how to express it. Talking about each emotion and labeling it will help each emotion to feel less scary. Also, reassure your child that everyone has emotions, and it is okay to have them.

Your child will need you to teach her how to process emotions. Once she feels the anger, what should she do with it? Your child does not know how to process her emotions, which is why she carves or burns them onto her body. She needs to you (or a qualified therapist) to tutor her in this skill.

You can also help your child by modeling how to handle emotions. If something makes you sad, do not hold it inside until you can be alone. Instead, let your child see your tears, not so he can comfort you but so that he can see how a person processes emotions.

Additionally, your child will need to develop other, more positive, ways to cope with pain. Teach your child ways to manage pain that do not involve self-injury. Teach him how to release the anger by punching a pillow and then taking a brisk walk around the block. Teach her how tears provide enormous relief when a person is feeling sad. Talk about ways to self-soothe that more positive, such as writing in a diary, talking with a friend, or exercising. The more coping strategy tools you can put into your adopted child's emotional toolbox, the less need he will have for cutting or burning himself.

Related topic:

Aftereffects of Childhood Abuse: Self-injury

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

Hope's picture

Although cutting and burning catch the fancy of the public, and media, they are only a couple of more flamboyant ways people cope with pain and stress. There are many self destructive behaviors that children of trauma fall into and find soothing or self regulating. As they grow to teens and adults, substance abuse comes to mind. As you say, it is terribly difficult to convince a person to stop engaging in behaviors that help them cope...or at least appear to. These behaviors have an addictive quality, and a hold on one's life much like addiction. It is important that adults who work with traumatized children realize this, in that the child will certainly relapse into the behavior at times, even when they know it is harmful. Even an adult who has "kicked the habit" so to speak, will in times of extreme stress find there is a near irresistible compulsion to slip back into these old patterns. It is equally important that we teach young people real coping strategies and stress management, or they will likely only abandon one unhealthy behavior for another which may be even more dangerous. Cutting and burning seem so horrible at first glance, but in reality there are many other less disturbing options that will do far more damage in the long run.

faitha's picture

Yes, I agree. Later in this series, I will discuss some of the other forms of self-injury. There are many. Most people seem to believe that self-injury = cutting, but it is really a wide umbrella of behaviors.

Take care,

- Faith

++++++++++

We must BE the change we wish to see in the world. - Ghandi

Hope's picture

Another thought. You talk about teaching a child to feel and identify their emotions, and then learn to deal with them in a healthy way. One of the road blocks to this is fear. When your experiences with pain have been terrifying and excruciating, you only need to bump up against pain to panic. One of the most valuable things we can teach our children is not to fear their pain. They need to learn that pain is a normal part of life, and it helps us to grow and learn. They need to know that their traumatic experiences are not the normal types of pain we deal with in life. Yet they also need to know they have endured extraordinary pain, and this says a lot about their strength to survive. One of the things I work hard on with my teen daughters, is learning that your feelings can lie to you. Not only is it important to feel and identify your emotions, but we must learn to recognize when they are lying to us. Sometimes the lens of our traumatic experience is distorting things. Sometimes we are just tired, or sick, or cranky. Learning to walk through these things is so much easier when you have someone beside you who will always tell it to you straight, and never walk away from you.

faitha's picture

This is such good advice. Thank you for sharing it.

- Faith

++++++++++

We must BE the change we wish to see in the world. - Ghandi

annasrealmom's picture

I am the bio mom of a teen who has been adopted. My daughter contacted us last year. I am very worried for her. She is 15, has been pregnant had an abortion, cuts herself and is now involved with gangs. I do not think the elderly couple who adopted her know about all of this! I am pretty much forbiden from contacting them. What do I do? any sugestions I would be grateful for

faitha's picture

Hi, Annasrealmom.

If you are forbidden from contacting the adopted family, I am not sure what your options are. Do you know anyone who also knows the adoptive family who you could ask to let them know about this?

- Faith