Many parents think that “cutting”—the act of self-harming that has become a disordered behavior among young teen and adolescent girls—is something that “would never happen to my kid” or is “only for screwed-up kids.”
Actually, no young girl is completely immune to this behavior, any more than she is immune to the possibility of trying cigarettes and alcohol or thinking she’s too fat. It is important for parents to understand this behavior so they can help prevent it.
It is estimated that one out of every 200 girls between age 13 and 19 regularly practice some type of self-abusive behavior. Cutting refers to using a sharp object such as scissors, a paring knife or a razor blade to make small, repeated scratches, usually on the wrists and arms. Sometimes these scratches are visible, but often are covered up by clothing. Cutting may also be done on other parts of the body.
Cutting is not usually an attempt at suicide, as one might think. The primary purpose of the behavior is to relieve emotional tension. Adolescent girls often describe self-harming as a way to obtain relief from anxiety, agitation or anger. They claim cutting is the only way to deal with intense feelings. It turns emotional pain into physical pain, because for these girls, physical pain is more tolerable.
While each situation is unique, many girls report that the act of cutting helps them to release emotion, stop obsessive or troublesome thoughts, communicate anger at others without risking conflict or rejection, express anger toward themselves, punish themselves for what they consider “bad” behaviors or emotions, stop critical voices in their heads, feel calm, let others know they are hurting, stop thinking about painful experiences or reduce a feeling of emptiness inside.
Some experts believe that the high percentage of kids cutting today has to do with the culture we live in. A high-stress environment has helped create teens whose lives are highly pressured and who have little down time. Because of that, they are not comfortable with solitude or the feelings that may arise during quiet time.
They are highly educated in technological skills, but receive little information on self-soothing skills. They are unable to process the intense feelings that come during adolescence and have trouble tolerating discomfort. They often lack connections with adults who can help them process these feelings or teach them skills they need to care for themselves emotionally.
The level of violence in the world—whether local or global—combined with a sense of insecurity sends teens the message that the world is not a safe place. Anxiety goes up, and kids do what they can to relieve it.
Parents can help teens avoid the need for cutting. Here’s how:
Teach self-soothing skills.
Talk to your teen directly about the high-intensity emotions that are normal during adolescence. Let them know that they need to learn to handle strong feelings in a healthy way. For some kids, that may mean finding release through sports or physical activities. Others may want to talk more to you or their friends or keep a journal. Some kids may find peace in listening to or playing music, decorating their rooms, painting and drawing or other creative activities. And some just need to curl up under the covers with a soft pillow and a movie. Help your teen come up with a list of self-soothers that are right for her.
Encourage regular down time.
As your teen becomes familiar with solitude and quiet, she will feel more comfortable being herself and handling her feelings. Help her to find even an hour each week when she can relax.
Teach appropriate expression of feelings.
Let your teen know that all feelings are OK, but that they need to be expressed appropriately. Expressing anger in a healthy discussion doesn’t hurt anyone and diffuses the energy. Gentle crying is a natural way for the body to release stress chemicals. Writing a letter can let out feelings of frustration in a relationship. Keeping a “comment board” on the kitchen door gives kids a place to voice their opinions in the family.
Model all of the above.
Show your teen how to act on the above by doing them yourself. If it’s difficult for you as well, let your child know that and work at it together. Encourage each other in your efforts.
Help your child know that you are providing a secure base for her—a roof over her head, food and clothing, and unconditional love. This helps teens counteract the confusion in the rest of the world and within themselves during adolescence.
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 21 and 25. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.