A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Away from Self-Harm Toward a Life Possible


what to do if your child confesses she has a desire to inflict self harm

My daughter will be wrapping up her middle school career this month, and it is a ride I want to get off—a ride with ups/downs, twists and turns, and a few curve balls along the way. One of the biggest gut punches came after the first quarter of 7th grade. She told me she was having thoughts of hurting herself.

While trying to keep my emotions in check, I asked her if she had thought about how she would hurt herself.  She said “no.” Fortunately, she had already been seeing a therapist (she has ADHD and anxiety), so I made a call, and she got her in as soon as she could. I also called her pediatrician to talk about adjusting her medication.

The third call I made was to her school; teachers, counselor, and special education case manager. Much of her anxiety was coming from school and was leading to her scary thoughts. I got the pleasant “Oh no,” “I’ll keep an eye out,” and “She does have a hard time focusing,” but that wasn’t enough.

Fortunately for my daughter, I had been a teacher and school educator and knew her rights under IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). No one was really stepping up to be the school change agent she needed. Teachers were frustrated because she was not focused and would rather draw. My daughter was frustrated because everyone in her classes was loud and rude. She ate lunch by herself. My heart was constantly breaking for her. Don’t get me wrong; there were stretches of times when things were working, but when they weren’t, precious steps forward were replaced with giant leaps back.

During all of this, my husband got a job offer in California, and my daughter couldn’t have been happier.  For her, it was going to be a new start—new teachers, and friends, and sun! But we had a major setback on the day all the 7th graders watched a film about suicide. I got a call at work from the school psychologist saying she had my daughter in her office. Once again, she felt like she wanted to hurt herself. I don’t even remember getting a letter notifying parents they were going to watch this because I would not have let her.  It was certainly a trigger.

I had a daughter who once loved school, learning, and making new friends, and now she hated school, had no passion to learn, and had no friends. I would be strong for her, and we would talk about anything and everything she wanted as well as role play and talk about what she could do when faced with certain situations. But when we were apart, I cried. I had no idea what to do.

As a mom, I walked a thin line of making sure her environment was safe (razors away, knives hidden, prescriptions locked up) and trying to get her to tell me if she had a plan for hurting herself or what that feeling really was. Did she just not have the right words to describe what she felt? But I just couldn’t ignore her thoughts and utterances.

I am happy to say though that our move to California is what the doctor ordered. She has a child psychiatrist who can treat her effectively (we were on a six-month waitlist in Virginia), she has teachers who care deeply, counselors and support staff who encourage her, and she even volunteers at the local animal shelter. No friends have come over to the house yet, but she is constantly talking to them on the phone.

I am still vigilant though. Just a few weeks ago, she told me she was having those thoughts again mainly because a kid in school told her she should just kill herself. You bet it took no time for this momma to be on the phone with teachers and the principal to tell them to get to the bottom of it. And a call to the psychiatrist to ask if a recent increase in dosage of her medicine could be behind it.  The school did get to the bottom of it, and the psychiatrist texted me back almost immediately. How refreshing.

Through all of this, my daughter knows I am there for her, and I will do whatever I can to make sure she feels safe, loved and listened to. Our journey could have ended differently. Instead, we have before us an open road.

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Tracy is the Director of Programming and Partnerships for Darkness to Light, a child sexual abuse prevention organization. She grew up in northeast Ohio, and has lived in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Arizona, and Northern Virginia and has worked in the arts, in education, in non-profits and in ed tech. Her husband's job brought them to the Bay Area and there's no looking back! Tracy is mom to two trans teens who are just beginning their journey. Self-care includes pedicures, reading, cooking, crafting, and just being with her family. She also serves as Chair of the Board for the Attachment and Trauma Network, a national non-profit.


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