Resilience in Children

My 12 yr-old is cutting herself and wants to die

Published: 16 Sep 2013
My 12 yr-old is cutting herself and wants to die

Dear Dr Justin,

My 12 year old daughter is cutting. Counsellors, mental health people etc. have had no effect. She hears voices. Writes about suicide. I’m at my wits end over this. I have sought help via praying. I feel so far away from God. It seems that no one can help. Where can I get good help for her. She asks God to help her but nothing. I’m desperate.


As you already know, this is a deeply serious issue. With the limited information in your email, I can only provide you with some general advice. Hopefully this will put you on a helpful track and things can improve with the right guidance.

First – Your daughter needs help from a professional… but it needs to be the right help. You’ve clearly tried some mental health people and counsellors, but this has not been successful.

Shopping for a psychologist can be hard. Many people have one or two visits with psychologists and give up if they don’t get what they want. Keep searching. Most psychologists understand that the ‘fit’ has to be right, and they’ll understand if you need to go elsewhere.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Your email makes it obvious that faith is important to you. Some psychologists will be up front about their view of how religion may or may not contribute to issues like those your daughter is experiencing. So ask whether they can be supportive of your faith.
  • The more you can narrow your search for a specialist in the areas of adolescence, self-harm, and possible even psychosis, the better. I’d encourage you to seek a clinical psychologist who works almost exclusively with teens who struggle with issues like those your daughter is experiencing. (I can’t be more specific because there is not enough information in your email to even hint at a diagnosis – if one is even appropriate.)
  • Degrees don’t mean everything, but they can sometimes be helpful. If you can find a psychologist who has a Clinical Masters degree or a PhD with a specialty in adolescent clinical issues, I suspect this will likely be your best bet. Some ‘generalist’ (or non-clinical) psychologists may focus in certain relevant areas too, but I would personally lean towards someone with that clinical and research specialty. (That said, not all would agree with me on this point).
  • It is essential that you ask whether the psychologist uses an eclectic mix of therapies, a psychodynamic therapeutic approach, or works from a scientist-practitioner model. The latter is preferable as it indicates the therapist will focus primarily on interventions that are based on scientific evidence.

Given that your daughter is hearing voices, it might even be necessary to visit with a psychiatrist as well.

My feelings are that you should visit with a GP TODAY and get a referral to progress this

Second – you might also benefit personally from some help and guidance from a psychologist.

Third – there are a few general pieces of advice that will be useful for you in this situation:

Learn all you can about adolescent development

Right now, in addition to her psychological difficulties, your daughter is experiencing significant pubertal changes. Further, her brain is undergoing a significant period of development which affects her thinking. Socially, things change at this age too with big changes in school environments, and with new kinds of interactions with both girls and boys.

In short your daughter is dealing with hormonal, physiological, psychological, neurological, social, and environmental change at an unprecedented level in her life. (There are many great books on adolescence. Your local bookstore – or psychologist – will be able to provide you with more specific guidance.) The more you know about these changes, the better you can support your daughter.

Your email doesn’t give information about deeper contextual factors, so it’s hard to know whether personal issues or difficulties with family members, friends, or perhaps media (the super-peer) may be underlying causes.

Set aside time to strengthen your relationship with her

You might do this through a Saturday morning outing for a cuppa or hot chocolate, or a Sunday afternoon stroll through the park. You may decide to keep her home from school for a girl’s day out. Perhaps when you say goodnight you might sit with her for a while?

However you choose to do it, spending time with her and keep your relationship strong will be a powerful support. If her dad is available, this is a vital imperative for him too! Dads who are involved with their daughters can play an important role in their wellbeing.

As a brief addition to this point, when you spend this time, drop any agenda you might have. Don’t focus on problems. Let her dictate the discussion. Let her develop her trust in you, and simply focus on being present together in that moment. If she wants to talk, encourage her – but stay out of advice mode.

Don’t try to fix her

As much as it is natural to want to make things right, to give advice, and to ‘fix’ your daughter, these attempts will only highlight to her how badly she is ‘failing’. (Whether she is or is not is irrelevant. She thinks she is and her perception wins). Your daughter doesn’t need you to fix her. She needs you to love her. Unconditionally. And the best way to do that is to help her feel accepted for how she is.

I recognise that this ‘answer’ may not be the answer you were looking for. Challenging circumstances like this rarely have easy, direct solutions. But with patience, compassion, time, and a skilled professional, I hope that you are able to find a positive resolution to your pain.

For more information, take a look at this article via Psychology Today, and this one here. It’s a horrible and complicated issue, and takes enormous compassion and empathy to work through.


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