You have probably heard the term “cutting” and likely have some misperceptions about it. Most of us cannot fathom that someone would willingly cause pain and harm to their own body. What is cutting and why do teens do it?
The type of cutting we are talking about here is when someone, usually a teen, makes cuts on their own body. This type of cutting is not to be confused with a suicide attempt, as they are quite different. Cutting, while considered self-harm, is actually an attempt to control emotional pain. It is not an attempt to end one’s life.
We tend to see cutting more frequently in girls than boys, but anyone can do it. Usually, it starts around age 14, but sometimes even younger, and it can last years. This is not a problem that will likely go away on its own.
Often, cutters have an underlying mental and/or eating disorder. Also, they might have been sexually, physically or verbally abused. Some teens experiment with cutting, but they really will only continue if there are serious underlying issues. The teens I have personally worked with that cut themselves had all been sexually abused. When the emotional pain got too intense, they’d cut themselves to release and control the pain.
When a teen has an underlying mental disorder, has been abused, or is just in immense pain, sometimes it can become too much. Often, they don’t have healthy ways to express themselves. They need an outlet, so they find that release in cutting.
Most teens who cut themselves describe it like a drug. The release makes them feel a rush of endorphins, similar to being high. Like a drug, it will take more and more to achieve the same result. Cutting is an unhealthy coping strategy for those that are unhappy. So how do you know if your child is cutting and what can you do?
Signs to look for:
- small, straight cuts
- usually on the arms or legs
- appear like cuts and scratches, with no explanation or excuses for how they got there
- mood changes (depression, anxiety…)
- behavior changes (crying, rage…)
- changes in school (lack of interest, grades…)
- change in relationships (break-ups, etc…)
- extreme stress (divorce, death of loved one…)
If your teen is cutting, it is imperative that you seek help. This does not go away on its own. It is not just a habit or a phase.
Treatment options are:
- Outpatient counseling/psychotherapy
- Inpatient treatment programs
- Psychiatric treatment, including medication for underlying mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression or bi-polar disorder
All of these will focus on stabilizing your teen’s mood, helping to increase their self esteem, learning to identify and express their feelings in healthy ways, and utilizing new coping skills instead of cutting. Cutting is not something to be ashamed of, and not as rare as you might think. Help is available and very successful. Everyone deserves to live a healthy life, and that includes mental health. Help your teen live the best possible life that they can.