My 14 year old son has been texting another 8th grader who says she is bulimic and cutting. He has told her to tell her parents, and she says she won’t because she doesn’t want to “shame them.” Do you have suggestions on how my son should respond to this girl? I’m very happy that he came to me with this problem, but I am not sure that I’m giving him the best advice on how to respond to his friend.
A Very Concerned Parent
Dear Very Concerned Parent,
When someone admits to self-injury or an eating disorder it can certainly be interpreted as a cry for help. Your son heard that cry and wants to help. How he handles it can be interpreted by his friend in different ways: if he reports it to a school counselor or teacher, she may feel he betrayed her trust; if he doesn’t report it she may be angry with him because he didn’t fulfill the “rescue fantasy” that self-injurers often hope for.
Self-injury is a means of regulating emotions that she feels cannot be expressed verbally. The goal is for your son to encourage his friend to find a trained professional. There are professionals who specialize in working with self-injurers using both individual and group therapy modalities. This trained professional will work with his friend on expressing her feelings in a healthy rather than unhealthy way. Your son may be tempted to want to rescue his friend himself. The most effective response is to consistently tell the girl to seek help. The longer his friend self-abuses, the more ingrained the habit becomes.
Now, the issue of “shaming” her parents is an important one in this process. There are many family scenarios that can lead some teens to self-injure, one being very rigid, disciplinarian parents in which the family culture is one in which it is unacceptable to show emotion. This may be the case in his friend’s family. She may have received the message that showing emotion and seeking help from others is unacceptable. She needs to understand that getting help now will be less of a burden on her parents than waiting until later when things are more out of control.
On an entirely different note, it is heartwarming to me to read that your son has enough trust in you to relate his concerns regarding his friend. This says a lot about the openess in your relationship with your son. Keep up the good work!