Janelle sat on her bed. She was crying because her best friend told some girls that she thought Janelle was annoying. She also told the girls she thinks Janelle is “all drama all the time.”
At first Janelle was in shock. She couldn’t believe Sara would say those things about her. Hadn’t she been there for Sara all last year when Sara was fighting with her mom? Then Janelle turned inward. Negative thoughts started running through Janelle’s head. She began to think, ‘Nobody likes me,’ and ‘All my friends are fake.’ She also started thinking things like, ‘My own parents don’t even care that I’m hurting.’ With these negative thoughts came an even deeper surge of anxiety and hopelessness. Janelle turned to the only coping skill she knew could make her feel numb. She went into her desk drawer and took out a razor blade she had set aside specifically for this purpose. She began to cut shallow lines across her left forearm until a little bit of blood showed.
I know this is awful to read. I know it’s even worse if you are concerned your teenager is cutting. While this story is made up, it’s based off the many, many teenagers I’ve sat across from in therapy who self-harm to cope with emotional pain.
Generally parents find self-injury really difficult to understand. It’s hard to imagine how inducing physical pain can relieve emotional pain.
There are usually two reasons teenagers cut themselves. The first is a cry for attention. These teenagers are hurting inside, don’t know how to effectively express it, and so try cutting themselves for someone else to notice. If they cut on their arm they might continue to wear short sleeves. They wait and see how long it takes Mom or Dad to make a comment. This is to be taken seriously and requires help from a professional counselor and/or a psychiatrist because it means the teenager isn’t able to communicate their emotions in a healthy and productive manner.
The second reason an adolescent might self-harm is to control their pain. If they are a teenager who becomes flooded with emotional distress, then their pain feels unmanageable. At least if they are cutting they control when they hurt, how deeply, where, how long, how much blood, whether or not the pain shows, and how much the wound scars. These are teenagers who feels as though emotional pain happens to them at random and no matter what they try to do, they are helpless to stop it. These teens are desperate to have control over something. This second group doesn’t usually want their wounds to be noticed. They do not want to be stopped from cutting because it’s their primary method of coping and they don’t trust anyone to love them through their hurt. They will often cut in locations on their body that are difficult to see such as hips, stomach, inner thigh, or arms if they always wear sleeves. In these situations professional help is a must.
If you have worried that your teenager is self-harming, please get them help right away. This is a cry for help that is loud and clear. It is also quite possibly beyond your ability to stop your child from this behavior without some guidance. It is very dangerous to just hope your teenager stops this behavior. I worked with one teenager who accidentally cut his wrist too deeply and he nearly severed an artery in his wrist, which could have killed him. He wasn’t trying to commit suicide, but he almost did so by mistake. Another problem with leaving the teenager to resolve this on their own is the risk of infection. If they don’t treat the wounds properly and/or use unsanitary objects to self-harm it could cause them to become ill. Finally, it is important to address self-injurious behavior because your child is in deep emotional pain and they are navigating it in an unhealthy manner. They need your love and support, but not your tolerance of their self-harm.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT