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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.
Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt