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MY TEENAGER IS CUTTING THEMSELVES – NOW WHAT? (PART I)

Like suicide, cutting and other types of self-harm appear to be all too common among teenagers today. In the United States cutting and self-harm is typically defined as, “hurting one’s self without the intent to die” (Hargus, Hawton, & Rodham, 2009). Although different from suicide most experts would agree that cutting and suicide appear to be closely related. Studies show that as many as 70% of teenagers who report an act of cutting or self-harm also reporting at least one suicide attempt (Nock, Joiner, Gordon, Lloyd-Richardson, & Prinstein, 2006, as cited by Hargus, Hawton, & Rodham, 2009).

Self-harm doesn’t always appear as cutting. Many times it may include:

Scratching
Biting
Burning the skin
Repetitive banging of the head, hands, arms, or feet
Eye-gouging
Ingesting foreign objects
Inserting objects into the body (White, 1999)

Most common items used to cut include:

  • Disposable razors: Far and away the biggest hit! Your teenage may be breaking the head of the razor and using the blade to cut. It is a good option for them because most parents do not consider these types of blades to be a threat, they are located in the bathroom (easy clean up and privacy), and they are easy to hide.
  • Razors from box cutters: Once again these blades are easy to hide and very sharp.
  • Kitchen knives: Most American homes have 10 or more kitchen knives. If one goes missing who will notice?
  • Pocketknives and hunting knives: Teenage boys seem to like this option as well. It is “normal” for them to have a knife so no one will think twice about it’s presence in their room.

If your teenager is cutting, the cuts may often appear somewhat superficial, however psychologically they are no less significant. Arms appear to be the most common location followed by the legs. Your teenager may go to great lengths to hide their cutting including wearing long sleeve shirts in the summer, coats in the spring, and hooded sweatshirts daily.

Your teenager may be cutting for one or more reasons including:

To relieve terrible feelings of tension
To obtain self-control
To obtain a sense of identity
To regain a sense of normalcy when emotional numbing has caused feeling of estrangement from the rest of the world
To manipulate others
To express self-hatred
To enhance sexual feelings
To experience euphoria
To vent feelings of anger and frustration
To relieve feelings of stress, tension, alienation (White, 1999)

REASONS FOR CUTTING CAN BE UNIQUE

As you can imagine the reason your teenager is cutting can become complicated. They may tell you its because it relieves stress or it makes them feel alive. Some may even state that it makes them feel in control or it helps them to “get their feelings out.” As parents you might even find yourself thinking “its cuz they want something from me” or “they are manipulative and want attention.” Although it is common for parents to feel this way about their child’s cutting, especially if the cutting persists over a long period of time, it is vital that you do not allow these thoughts to effect your attitude. The resentment and anger that often comes with being a parent of a teenager who cuts, not only gets in the way of treatment, but it may cause you to emotionally withdrawal from your child, damaging the relationship and creating a greater need for the youth to cut. Understanding why your teen cuts is something you will need to discuss with your personal mental heath professional.

The common theme in each of the reasons listed above is emotion. Teenagers who cut themselves typically have difficulty coping with their emotions consequently they avoid experiencing them all together. This process of emotional hiding or emotional denial can be damaging and seems to be one of the root causes of both depression and severe anxiety (fear/stress) (Allen, McHugh, & Barlow, 2008).

TWO MORE THINGS:

First, cutting typically is not about rebellion or defiance. It’s about emotion. When addressing the issue with your teen, it is imperative that your see it as something tender, something relational with its roots in emotional pain rather than rebellion. If you view it as defiance it may make you angry causing you to push your child away, rather than seeing it as painful causing you to move closer emotionally.

Second, teenagers who cut also typically have a low self-esteem. Your teenager may not openly state that they hate themselves, but this belief can often appear in other ways (ie. other self destructive behaviors such as abuse of drugs and alcohol, damaging relationships, or aggression). Demeaning your child for cutting is counter productive. Rather than getting angry and feeling guilty or ashamed, most teens wish that their parents would move closer to them emotionally. Taking some time to really talk to your teen in a non judgmental manner will not only help you better understand their thought processes it will provide your teenager the opportunity to do the very thing they have been trying to avoid; emotionally connect with another person.

Joe James, Psy.D.

***Any advice given on this website is offered in generic form. In other words, all of our site visitors have unique qualities that play a role in their personal mental health. We do not know you personally and can therefore not take into consideration these qualities when offering advice, and do not claim to do so. All information provided on this site is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and his/her existing psychologist, mental health professional, teacher, or professor.***

REFERENCES:
Allen, L. B., McHugh, R. K., Barlow, D. H. (2008). Emotional Disorders: A unified protocol. In D. H. Barlow (Ed.), Clinical handbook of psychological disorders: A step-by-step treatment manual (pp. 216-244). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Hargus, E., Hawton, K., Rodham, K. (2009). Distinguishing between subgroups of adolescents who self-harm. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behaviors, 39(5), 518-537.

White, T. W. (1999). How to identify suicidal people: A systemic approach to risk assessment. The Charles Press Publishers, Inc., PA.

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