The two best things you can do when you discover your child is self-harming is to actually listen to them and educate yourself on the matter instead of responding with fear-driven paranoia about what they might be doing. I know it’s difficult to accept; it’s quite shocking to realize someone you love dearly is struggling with this issue, especially when it raises questions in your mind about their safety. However, it’s important to recognize that overreacting to their behavior can be just as damaging as underreacting to it.
Self-harm does not occur in vacuum; there’s always something else going on but what exactly differs from person to person. It’s a mistake to assume that just because your teen is cutting, burning, etc. that they are definitely suicidal. In fact, there’s a whole host of them, myself included, who very much wanted to live and learned to cut as a way to deal with stress, anxiety and depression. That being said, if you have serious concerns about your teen taking their own life, by all means follow up with a mental health professional or call the police in the event of an emergency.
I cannot emphasize enough how beneficial a two-way conversation with your teen could be for both you and them. If you demonstrate that you’re willing to listen to why they’re hurting on the inside and not merely lecture them on why you think they should stop, they’re a lot more likely to trust you and want to come to you for help. Don’t assume. Ask. Some parents overreact by policing their teen to the extent that it builds resentment and increases the shame/embarrassment they feel. On the other hand, turning a blind eye to it communicates that you don’t care or don’t take their problems seriously. If possible, try to actively engage them about what’s going on in a supportive I-want-do-whatever-will-actually-help-you way and listen. They might even hand you the best strategies for helping them. Mostly, it’s an ideal way to build trust and use that for their benefit.
The internet itself is an invaluable resource for education on self-injury. If you have a questions, simply post them on a forum and get firsthand information from supportive people all over the world who have struggled with the same issue. My Dad did that by identifying himself on forums as a concerned parent investigating on behalf of his daughter. He didn’t tell me until years later how many helpful responses he received from people who said they wished their parents had done their research instead of freaking out and assuming the worst.
The point is: Care about your kids in an informed, effective way. Gather information. Figure out what works and what doesn’t. But don’t keep doing the same thing that doesn’t work over and over. Work with them if you can. Above all, get them the help they need even if it means giving them access to a counselor or psychiatrist.