Cutting seems like a somewhat recent phenomenon. It’s been around for a long time, but it has grown in notoriety and popularity. The majority of teenagers I work with who have tried cutting mostly did so because a friend told them about it. They wanted to try and see if it was a helpful way to cope with emotional pain. Most find that it isn’t, and do not continue to cut.
The teens who cut more seriously and regularly are much more concerning. When I see a teenager in my office who cuts frequently and/or deeply, I worry. I immediately begin the discussion of having the teenager see a psychiatrist for an evaluation. This is not cutting for attention as much as a deep emotional disturbance. Oftentimes medications are needed in these situations.
Teens cut in a variety of places. The most common location is the inner forearm of their non-writing hand. So, if they write with their right hand, the cuts are on the soft side of their left forearm. Other common locations are the inner thighs, and the stomach. Cutting on the thighs and stomach is done to avoid detection. Often teenagers who cut on their arm want to be found out. This is particularly true if they cut and then wear short sleeves.
Why do teens do this? There are of course a variety of reasons. Cutting is not a one size fits all venture. However, the best explanation I’ve ever heard was by Richard Bautzer, MFT. He told me he believes teens cut so they can control their pain. You would naturally ask, “Why would they inflict more pain on themselves as a way to control pain?” This is because there is some emotional stressor that feels uncontrollable to the teenager. This stressor really could be anything. An example might be parents going through a divorce.
Cutting to control pain works like this: A teen can control when they cut, for how long, with what device, and how deeply. This is untrue of emotional pain. For an adolescent, emotional pain often seems random and unmanageable.
What do you need to take away from this discussion as a parent? The most important thing is that cutting is serious. If your teen is self-injuring then they might be suicidal. Self-harm, whether done for attention or something deeper, is abnormal. Your teenager needs an evaluation by a professional. Call a therapist, school counselor, pediatrician or psychiatrist. Whatever you do, call someone. Do not assume this is something you should or can handle on your own.
A final thought for parents who have children that self-harm: It is terrifying. I realize that finding out your child, whom you love more than words can ever express, wants to inflict pain on him or herself is one of the scariest things you’ve dealt with. Don’t hide this from everyone because you feel ashamed. Talk to one or two close, trusted people so you can have support. You have to make sure you’re not spending a lot of energy and time blaming yourself. Instead direct that energy toward finding a solution.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT