As a parent, what should you do when you have discovered that your teenager has been intentionally cutting or hurting himself or herself? Teenage cutting appears to be more and more common these days and is something you should take very seriously. However dealing with this kind of problem can be very difficult for both you and your adolescent so it is imperative that you take the time to manage yourself, ask some really good questions, educate yourself, and take appropriate action. But first, let me give you some advice on what not to do.
Things Not to Do:
- Act like it’s not a big deal
- Ignore it
- Go on an hour long emotional tirade
- Berate or belittle your son or daughter
- Blame the behavior on something simplistic
- Say “you just did it for attention” (even though sometimes you may believe this to be true)
- Threaten to do more damage
- Blame it all their “friends”
WHAT TO DO:
Take a deep breath. Discovering that your teenager has been hurting him or her self is disturbing and dramatic. It only makes sense that you would be upset (if you weren’t that maybe a sign of an even bigger problem). Cutting is a behavior that can be very hard for a parent to understand and it can leave you feeling helpless, horrified, angry, disgusted and sad. However it is really important that you do not over react. Your teenager is already experiencing enough emotional pain, the last thing they need is for you to be out of control. If you need a few moments to collect your thoughts and emotions please take the time to call a friend for help. Now is not the time to leave your child alone so you may need to have someone else come over for a bit to just sit with you and your family. Your response may be the key to your teenager getting the help they need and you and your teenager developing a deeper connection relationally.
You will need to get a better understanding of what your teenager has been doing so you can do your best to ensure their safety and get them the right kind of help. Asking about self-harming behaviors is very similar to asking about suicide; it can be very uncomfortable for all parties and will no doubt elicit an emotional response from your teenager. Be prepared! For a brief outline about how to ask your teenager about suicide or cutting take a minute to look at my post on teenage suicide (link here).
Assumptions and misinformation can create a lot of problems in relationships, especially with teenagers. Cutting and self-harm, although quite common today, is something that you may have no experience with, meaning you will need to educate yourself if you ever hope to understand where your teenager is coming from. Cutting behaviors can be very complicated mentally and emotionally with no easy answers (there doesn’t appear to be an “easy button” for this one). Each teenager cuts for their own reason, however; the professionals who deal with this stuff on a regular basis have discovered some common themes.
Cutting is often used:
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)
Gaining an understanding of why your teenager has been cutting can be difficult and will require extensive therapy with a qualified mental health professional. Understanding the “why” behind the cutting is important. However, you should be forewarned that you may not like the “why” and most likely will feel confused and angry. Self destructive behaviors often elicit anger and confusion from others, especially parents. Consequently, by taking time to talk to your teenager about cutting you may discover that you can relate to your teenager’s reasons, putting you in a stronger position to use this tragic and horrible circumstance as a means of connecting with them relationally.
FINALLY, TAKE ACTION:
Although cutting (self-harm) and suicide are not the same thing, they are very closely related. Studies show that as many as 70% of teenagers who report an act of cutting or self-harm also report at least one suicide attempt (Nock, Joiner, Gordon, Lloyd-Richardson, & Prinstein, 2006, as cited by Hargus, Hawton, & Rodham, 2009). You will need to seek the help of a mental health professional who is passionate about teenagers and adequately trained to deal with depression, anxiety, suicide, and self-harm. Most mental health professionals are capable of handling these types of issues, however not every therapist may be the right fit for your situation. Also, please take a minute to read through my posts regarding suicide and be sure to put together an adequate safety plan with your professional.
***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.***
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.