Relationship Connection: I am horrified by my son’s scars from cutting himself

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Question

Our son recently returned from his service as a missionary for our church, and we learned that his last few months on his mission he had been cutting to deal with his depression and anxiety brought on from living with a difficult companion. Also, at about the same time, his girlfriend broke up with him, and it was too much for him to deal with. We have gotten him mental health help and medication since his return, and he is doing much better I’m happy to report.

But now he is left with absolutely horrifying scars on his chest that take your breath away to see. What can or should we do to reduce such ugly scarring? To even go swimming, anyone who saw him would cringe. And anyone he dated in the future or her parents may potentially want her to run away, not because of the cuts, but because they may represent someone who may not be a stable companion in the future.

I don’t feel like I’m a really harsh and judgmental person, but I admit if I put myself in those shoes, I would be very concerned if my daughter was dating someone who self-harmed. 

As a mom, I am sick over it, and I don’t want the “scarlet letter” on him forever because of how he chose to deal with his pain. Even as his biggest supporter, it is traumatic for me to see. Please help me know what I can do. 

Answer

I’m glad to hear that your son is physically safe and that he’s getting help for his emotional struggles. Your concerns are understandable, especially right now in the immediate aftermath of this painful discovery.

You naturally feel protective of your son’s future and don’t want him to face more bullying and rejection when he lets his guard down and lets others get close to him. It’s good you’re asking about this, as the way you personally respond to him right now and in the future can have an impact on how he copes with the reactions of others. 

It’s important that you don’t let your own pain and anxiety about his scarring overwhelm your interactions with him. If your trauma is taking over, then please make sure you’re getting mental health support for yourself. The companion issues, your son’s emotional pain, the cutting and the scarring can all cause secondary traumatization for you.

Left unaddressed, you run the risk of staying in an overprotective dynamic with him where you treat him like he’s weak and fragile. There’s no shame in seeking help for yourself. You’re having a tough time with it, and he doesn’t need to manage his own pain while making sure you’re okay.

While you’re working through your own reactions to all of this, please take a close look at understanding why you’re preoccupied with what others will think of your son. Here are some questions I invite you to explore:

  • Are you ashamed of how he responded to his pain? Why or why not?
  • Does he embarrass you? Why or why not? 
  • How have his pain mismanagement and scarring changed the way you see him? 
  • How do you see people who make visible mistakes?
  • Do you see him as weak? Explain. 
  • How do you believe he can become stronger from these experiences? 
  • What does his suffering mean about you and how you raised him?

While there is a lot of work to do to help him heal from the emotional, spiritual, relational and physical impact of these experiences, your confidence in his ability to receiving healing will give him the strength to face future judgment and reactions from others. Yes, his scars will most certainly draw concern and judgment from others. He will have a choice when others ask him about the scarring: He can shrink in shame or he can embrace the powerful reality that healing is possible.

If he believes that healing for him is possible, then the reality of his scarring will provide him with countless opportunities to share his journey. He can validate and normalize the suffering of others. He can warn others of the harms of mismanaging pain. He can rejoice in the peace that comes through true healing.

He has a dramatic and powerful story that will undoubtedly bless many lives. So many of us are suffering and mismanaging our pain in less visible ways, so his story won’t be difficult to understand for the sincere of heart

He’s in the early stages of his healing right now, but your ability to face his scarring with confidence that he can fully heal will help him face it without shame. He may not be able to see right now how his scars will be a blessing to him and others, but you can know this and hold space for this as you respond to him from a place of courage and confidence. He didn’t know how to manage his pain then, and now it’s important for him to learn how to manage the pain he’ll encounter as he’s regularly reminded of this time in his life. 

Have confidence that your son can experience complete healing, which includes the ability to tell his story. His work will be to learn how to tell his story from a place of strength instead of shame. My experience is that when people are honest and share their stories, other people respect them more, not less. 

Your family is reeling from the devastating discovery of so many painful realities that will take time to heal. Please don’t rush the process and allow your fear and shame of future reactions keep you from embracing him with the love and confidence that he will heal and offer healing to others. Don’t worry about how others will respond. Worry about how you’re responding to him in this very moment.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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