Self-injury using knives or other sharp objects to score cuts on one’s own body, otherwise known as cutting, is a very serious problem, especially for young teens.
Self-Harm Cutting: Is There A Teen Connection?
There is considerable discussion as to whether self-harm primarily affects men or women, however we know for sure that it usually starts in the early teen years. And, while cutting is the primary form of self-injury, there are other ways to hurt ourselves, too, like pulling out of hair (trichotillomania) or burning. We’ll be referring primarily to cutting in this article, though.
It can be incredibly frightening for a parent to see these types of marks, or worse, to learn about it from a third source. If your child has actually spoken about it to you, then know that they have trusted you with a precious gift– most teens hide the evidence and never speak of their emotional distress. Most teens, in fact, fear punishment and angry words from a parent and others.
It may be totally incomprehensible to many parents as to why a teen would choose to do this to themselves. We may even choose to deny to ourselves some of the signs or symptoms and yet, this is something that is best addressed early.
Studies From The Mayo Clinic. Exploring Some Symptoms Of Self-Harm Cutting
Listed below are some symptoms of self-harm from the Mayo Clinic. Do you recognize any of them?
- Scars, such as from burns or cuts.
- Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises or other wounds.
- Broken bones.
- Keeping sharp objects on hand.
- Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather.
- Claiming to have frequent accidents or mishaps.
- Spending a great deal of time alone.
- Pervasive difficulties in interpersonal relationships.
- Persistent questions about personal identity, such as "Who am I?" "What am I doing here?"
- Behavioral and emotional instability, impulsivity and unpredictability.
- Statements of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness.
If you do realize that some of these may describe your adolescent, take heart - there is help available, and self-harm can be treated effectively.
First: Know That Cutting Is Not A Death Wish
Your teen is not thinking about suicide; it’s more a question of power and control. Cutting gives a sense of control, as if for at least this aspect of their lives, they have some control over it. The physical pain of cutting is helping to release some of the emotional pain they are feeling.
The key is finding out what that emotional pain is, and not focusing on the cutting itself. Shaming or blaming a teenager not only doesn’t help, but can actually cause more harm. We must work through our own sense of shame and frustration with the situation before we attempt to discuss it with our children.
Second: The Cause May Not In Any Way Be Related To Parenting
Also, know that this is not necessarily a reflection on you or your parenting. Sometimes, bullying at school or taunts by peers inflect much deeper damage than we suspect. (Quick – think back to a taunt you may have heard at middle school. It still hurts, even after all of those years, right?)
Third: Cutting And Self-Harm Is Serious And Should Be Treated Correctly
Don’t brush away the seriousness of the issue. Self-harm can lead to more serious injuries, and is often linked to other issues like eating disorders, depression, addiction, and impulse control. If you suspect your child or another child is practicing self-injury, remaining quiet and hoping the problem will go away is not a good course of action. In fact, most adults who self-harm started the behavior as an adolescent.
Many teens will feel intense shame after cutting, yet cannot seem to stop. There is also a physical component, as the rush of endorphins in the brain after an injury can bring a sense of calm and pleasure, making it even harder to stop the behavior. In addition, self-harm numbers have been on the rise, making it seem, for some teens, as if everyone they know practices some form of self-harm.
How Talking Helps And The Right Kinds Of Conversations Can Cure
Here are some tips on having a conversation with your teen, summarized from the Adolescent Self-Injury Foundation:
- Do speak with your teenager if you have noticed any of the listed symptoms. Remain calm, even though it feels very difficult to do so. Gently question if self-harm is something that they have practiced or attempted. When faced with clear evidence or an admission, reassure your child that you love them, and that you will work with them to get help.
- Don’t ask the teen to stop cutting on your behalf.
- Don’t ask for a contract or other means of keeping them from self-harm. This will only serve to increase shame if they cannot stop immediately.
- Don’t let your child know about your own emotional distress of their cutting; it will be an additional emotional burden for them.
And lastly, seek treatment, and be supportive of the treatment plan. A teenager’s unwillingness to continue is not a reason to stop; most teens in this situation are not necessarily able to see it clearly.
An experienced psychologist or psychotherapist will work with a teen to understand the issues beneath the cutting or self-harm. At Nassau Guidance, we have worked with many families and teens to restore the emotional health of both the individual and the family. We are devoted to caring for and treating each client as an individual, with diverse needs and emotional support.