Cutting and What it Means

By George

As a parent or caregiver, it’s very scary and unnerving when you find out your child has been cutting. One father said, “I was weirded out. Why would someone do that to themself? I was afraid she was trying to commit suicide.” It can make you feel powerless, confused and even angry.

Some things that may help:

  • Your child is not attempting suicide when he is cutting. The reason why a child cuts or burns himself (also called self harming) can vary. “I do it because I feel numb all the time and it makes me feel something … alive.” “When I feel overwhelmed with anxiety [and cut], it makes me feel more calm.” “… I feel a rush when I burn myself. It’s like the endorphins in my brain!” There is some neuroscience behind this last one – cuts and burns may produce endogenous opiates — a rush. These are all answers I’ve heard from teens in therapy sessions.
  • Some teens that cut (also known as ‘cutters’) don’t want people to know. They don’t want the attention. They may wear long sleeves, wear lots of bracelets to cover their scars, use make-up over cuts and scars or cut on body parts that remain unexposed. Others want the attention it brings them when people react. Maybe it’s a cry for help, maybe they want others to know they are suffering, or want others to pity them. Again, the motives can vary, but what seems consistent is that it’s a way of dealing with negative emotions.
  • Cutting, almost unheard of in the ‘90s, is becoming much more commonplace today.
  • Like any self-harming coping skill (think drugs or alcohol) cutting can become addicting.
  • Approach your child when you’re calm: recognize they are coping with negative feelings, even if it is in a self-sabotaging way. Punishments may do little to stop the negative feelings and extinguish the behavior.
  • Be willing to talk about it. As often happens, they may be afraid of your response, or afraid that your awareness of the problem will add more stress to their life, or yours. Remind them you love them and want to help them. It’s OK to acknowledge you don’t quite know how to handle this, but you want to understand what they are going through.
  • Don’t be angry, punitive, or call them or the behavior stupid. While it may be a short sighted solution they may regret later, it makes sense to your child now and they may rely on it to get through the day, like a cane. You don’t want to shut them down or have them become defensive. Don’t ignore your child or the behavior. It won’t make things better to leave them suffering alone.

When anyone, teens included, get in a bad space, the world can become much smaller and dark. Getting them to interact with others can go a long way to removing their focus off of themselves and onto someone else. Positive connections with others cannot be underestimated. What therapy could offer is a chance for your child to explore what is underneath this pain or numbness they feel. Therapists can engage them to learn healthier ways to communicate their wants and needs. If the problem goes deeper, like a traumatic past, then they may feel relieved those underlying issues are being addressed.

Telling your child they need to go see a ‘”shrink” may be met with resistance. Instead, try coming from their point of view and suggest that someone may be able to help her meet her needs and to feel better. As you may be painfully aware, teens don’t always want to confide their deepest, darkest to their parents or caregivers. Seeing a neutral third party can go a long way to helping your child open up and feel safe. However, teens learn they do not have to do what their parents wish or even command.

Even if your child refuses to get help (yet!) you can seek support for yourself. I’ve seen many parents in therapy explore parenting options and help them recognize what they can do to influence their child for the best, even when their child refuses help (for the time being). You don’t have to go through this alone and neither does your child.