Monthly Archives: May 2016

A context for self-harm

When we discover our child is engaged in self-harming behaviour – whether burning, cutting, or otherwise interfering with their body – our automatic response as a parent is to be fearful. We fear because we don’t understand why our loved ones are doing this, and we intuitively know it relates to their attachment to themselves.

The child’s relationship to their harming behaviour is a private one. It provides him or her with a physical and emotional form of stimulation.

Our skin is our body’s largest organ, and we use it in many ways to soothe ourselves and to present ourselves to others. We manipulate our skin through dying and styling our hair; getting a tattoo; piercing a body part; tanning our skin; reshaping our body; or adjusting, and changing our appearance. This is a widespread phenomenon, and when taken to the extreme, it can result in what we refer to as self-harm.

When we take a step back from our concerns about the child’s behaviour, we can see the behaviour in attachment terms.

When we try and take choices away from our adolescents, we change the meaning of the behaviour and it becomes an interactive rather than a private one.

We relate to the behaviour as it appears to us. It becomes something we see as harmful, and we want them to stop. Therefore it has a different meaning. The behaviour moves into the relationship, and we begin to say, “I want to control you. I am determined to control you.”

When we intervene, the cutting becomes involved in the context of our relationship with the child.

The child has a personal and individual reason for the behaviour, and in order for them to stop they will have to meet that reason for doing it in another way.

By stepping back and offering proximity and conversation, we begin to understand the reason for the behaviour, and thus we are able to offer them substitute alternatives.

When we are triggered in this way by our adolescent’s behaviour, mindfulness helps us get past our automaticity and move into the present moment. Then we are more able to have a conversation in which we might ask, “How does that behaviour help you?” rather than, “How does it hurt you?” Our curiosity can be interactively mindful, non-judging, and intended for the benefit of the child.

In my practice I try to see behaviour, including self-harm, in the context of choice. I see the person separate from the behaviour. The harming is what they do, not who they are.

“I’ll do it myself”

Your three-year-old won’t be reciprocal. She says, “I’ll do it myself,” and pushes your hand away.

What goes into separation is appreciation for the other person’s ability to be separate. Do we let the three-year-old tie her own shoes when we see that she is struggling? Or do we do it for them?

The parent who is really attached to the child lets the child button her shoes by herself, because the parent is not anxious about their attachment.

Some of us can’t do that – can’t establish a bedtime for our children, or let the children go to bed by themselves.

These are building blocks.

At each developmental stage there is a new building block everyone has to engage in.

We can take joy in watching our children separate from us, and take pain as we watch their separation.



“Yes” and “No”

We want to be close but we know how dangerous it is to be close. In the balance between being connected and being separated, we put up boundaries to maintain separation; because when we offer love and support the other has the option to say they don’t want it.

We are two separate entities in the world, and we know losing the other is going to hurt. When we are bound to another, if they die, we die. Survival demands that we separate.

We can all run away from each other, or we can run towards and try to console each other.

At times we make up for lost years spent apart, and put out the flame of pain and separation through simply setting it aside. A little bit of joy can change everything.

When we have a  balance of pain and joy, the pain that comes along is not overwhelming. It doesn’t mean that we avoid the pain, but the affect becomes softer. Perhaps we return to someone we have lost and suddenly discover all of the things we had with them, and notice that those things still exist. We still have them. We may have lost the person but we have pieces of joy inside us as we remember the past, and we soothe ourselves with that joy.

It is magical how this structure comes together, and we see it happen around great pain, during periods of separation, or in times of danger.

In many cultures, funerals are safe places to express affection we have for the departed that we may have been afraid to fully express in life in the danger of being close. In that safety we say, “Yes”.

Consolation springs out of our shared experience, and everyone takes on a share of the pain.

Celebrating “No”

Just as we all have different ways of saying, “No” we all have different patterns and ways of separating that are habitual.

Much of our pain comes from our lack of balance between “Yes” and “No”. We tend to separate the two cognitively, but we don’t separate them affectively.

If we respect our partners we are able to say, “No” to each other in a way that cements the partnership.

We can think about this in terms of saying, “No” to other people, but we can also think about it in terms of, “How do we say, “No” to ourselves?” How that fits with attachment is that we have to be willing to say, “No” to ourselves in the moment so the other person can get their attachment needs met at this particular time.

Saying, “No” is fundamental and therefore is a principle of attachment. When we are born we say, “Yes” but we also say, “No”. The crux of it starts there.

The growing organism inside the mother is a “No” to her because it will stop being part of her. That is the price of being. Detachment from Mother is both a physical and emotional insult to her. But at birth, back to the paradox, the infant latches on and says, “Yes”. As we follow Nature, we learn that we go away in order to stay.





Saying “No”


“No” is a functional word in relationship, not a dysfunctional one.

Most of the time the exchange of “No” is disguised by automatic behaviour patterns from childhood and infancy, wherein we learn how not to be offensive to others when we are the one who says, “No.”

Tracing that back to where it’s an actual “No” – “No, I’m not going to do that” – becomes disguisable. We ask:  “Do you want to go to the movies?” And the other person says, “That sounds like a good idea.” The next question is, “What movie shall we go to?” Negotiating the movie means that someone has to say, “No, I don’t want to go to that movie.”

We have many ways of avoiding. For instance, we might say, “I would prefer…” But when we say, “No”, our message is that we are a separate person with separate attachment needs.

This gets confusing when we are dealing with children. We say “no” to kids without the subtlety, because they have to learn how to create reciprocal relationships with other people. Children just want what they want. We ask them, “Do you want to share your toys?” They say, “No,” and we say, “I think you should. There’s a benefit to sharing your toys.” As one of the children refuses to share, the other child cries. Mom and Dad intervene, and the event becomes an avoidance of the issue: we distract one of the children and give them something else so they don’t fight for the toys.

Learning to say, “No” is about peeling the onion of attachment down to the basics of reciprocal behaviour, which is based on appreciation for the other person, and trusting that the relationship is strong enough to allow, “No”.