Invalidation and Self Harm

Self-harm is when someone hurts themselves on purpose. Also called self injury, it includes behavior such as cutting, burning, and even things like punching walls. Everyone agrees self-harm is a serious symptom requiring treatment.

Many young persons commit self-harm. It is often thought to be a way children and teens manage strong, negative emotions. Rather than using more healthy, adaptive ways of coping with difficult problems and feelings, people often use dangerous and unhealthy methods. This includes abusing drugs and alcohol, risky sexual behavior, aggressive behavior, and self-harm. These methods may be effective at temporally blocking out negative feelings, but they cause problems of their own. They also tend to perpetuate the underlying issues, and prevent someone from developing coping methods that are actually effective at addressing the source of their feelings.

But, what causes young people to self harm? When considering young persons, one place to always look is family dynamics. Often, negative emotions are caused and sustained by issues arising within the family.

Once a young person is struggling (whether from issues arising from within or outside the family), the families response is key. Do parents show concern, empathy and understanding, and seek out professional help for their child? Or do they deny the problem, and belittle the child for feeling the way they do?

This latter way of responding is referred to as invalidation. Invalidation is making a negative judgement about someone’s thoughts or feelings. This includes comments such as:

  • You shouldn’t feel that way.

  • You have nothing to feel sad about.

  • Lots of people have it worse than you.

  • You should be able to feel better on your own.

When parents are invalidating to their children, lots of problems can arise. Invalidated children may develop a negative sense of self, since they are often told they should not be experiencing the negative emotions they do experience- “there must be something wrong with me.” They are often denied the ability to seek help, or they reject help because they internalize the belief that they should be able to feel better on their own. In addition, they may develop an unhealthy relationship to their emotions, denying or rejecting them, and become unable to express themselves honestly.

One recent study examined invalidation and self harm. The two were unsurprisingly related. Invalidating parents had children who were more likely to self-harm. Unable to deal with negative feelings in a healthy way, such children develop the very unhealthy habit of hurting themselves to feel some relief.

Unfortunately, the same study also demonstrated that it can be very difficult to teach parents to be more validating.

It is possible, however, to become a more validating parent. The parent training model informed by Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has been shown to effective. In our experience, it requires highly motivated parents willing to commit to at least several months of weekly sessions.

Tanner Oliver