Last year, popular teen singer and actress, Demi Lovato, then just 18, admitted she has wrestled with cutting since she was 11 years old. “It was a way of expressing my shame on my body,” she told “20/20,” ABC’s newsmagazine. “There were times where my emotions were just so built up, I didn’t know what to do. [Cutting was] the only way I could get an immediate release.”
Cutting is a form of self-harm where teens cut or scratch themselves with a knife, fingernail, razor or other sharp object. Their intention is to bleed, but not cause serious harm. In other words, it is not a suicide attempt, a cry for help, or even a way to get attention. Teens tend to cut themselves on their arms, legs, bellies, or other places where the scars can be hidden. Cutting results from a teen dealing with the stress of an emotional issue. They feel overwhelmed by a problem, and rather than coping in a healthy way, they physically hurt themselves. The injury provides a temporary sense of relief from strong, painful feelings that have built up inside by allowing the teen to focus on the injury as the reason for the pain and to feel a sense of control.
Very little study has been done in this area, but it is estimated that one in every 200 American girls between the ages of 13 and 19 cut themselves regularly. Although girls in middle and high income families seem most at risk, self-injury crosses racial, socioeconomic and gender lines. But probably the most alarming statistic is that cutting is on the rise. One recent study conducted in Australia and published in November, 2011 reported that one in 12 teens deliberately harm themselves. Young adults who had depression or anxiety when they were teens were about six times more likely to self-harm, compared to those who had no depression and anxiety when they were teens. Interestingly, the study also found that the majority of those who cut did eventually stop cutting by the time they reached age 30. Whether this is because they eventually found treatment or developed new coping mechanisms as they matured is unclear.
Signs of Cutting
Parents need to ask themselves what is happening with their child if they see certain types of warning signs. And these are signs not just for cutting, but rather indicators that something is wrong in your teen’s life, whether self-injury, substance abuse, eating disorder, etc. Our lives are so busy that sometimes it’s easy to think, ‘I see that my child’s behavior has changed, but it’s not really causing any problems within the family right now, so I’ll deal with it later.’ If you see these things, it’s time to starting asking questions:
- Has there been a social change in your teen’s life? New friends? Withdrawal from friends?
- Is their school performance or grades suffering?
- Has there been a change in their sleeping cycle, eating patterns, or other day-to-day behaviors?
- Has there been an emotional change in your teen – more withdrawn, more angry, more aggressive, or more tearful?
Specific signs of cutting include: unexplained injuries, such as cuts, scratches, burns, bruises, etc.; making excuses or acting embarrassed for injuries or scars if they are discovered; wearing concealing clothing (e.g. long sleeves even in hot weather); having trouble dealing with emotions; and/or low self-esteem.
There are two main things parents can do to help prevent their child from becoming a cutter. The first thing is to build a good relationship with your children. This is not easy with adolescents, but having an open and non-judgmental relationship is essential so they can come to you when they’re in distress.
The other important thing parents can do is teach their children positive coping mechanisms. Cutting is a way of relieving pent-up emotional stress, and teens are driven to it because they don’t know another way to release their emotions. Adults need to provide them with healthy alternatives. Talk to your children about stress-relief and suggest:
- Walking, dancing, sports, yoga or other exercise
- Creative pursuits such as painting, playing an instrument or sculpting
- Watching TV or movies
- Listening to music
- Pounding a pillow or punching bag
- Writing in a journal
If you suspect your teen is cutting, the most important thing you need to do is get him/her professional help. This is not just a stage, and it’s not something your child can just stop. A mental health professional must help your child get to the root of the problem. Therapists and counselors are trained to help people discover inner strengths that help them heal. These inner strengths can then be used to cope with life’s problems in a healthy way. Self-injury can become very serious and sometimes addictive. Some additional tips for parents of teens are:
- When you talk to your teen, be calm and direct; do not lecture, judge, or get angry.
- Do not try to force your teen to stop – he or she needs to make that change on his or her own.
- Be supportive by listening and letting your teen know that he or she is not a bad person and, with help, can find alternate ways to deal with his or her emotions.
- Encourage your teen to talk their problems out with you, other responsible adults, or friends.
- Acknowledge that your teen must be in a great deal of pain.
- Encourage your teen to avoid people, music, and internet sites that glorify self-injury, and to seek friends who share his or her positive interests.
- Be patient with your teen. Self-harming behavior takes time to develop and will take time to change.
- Encourage your teen to call the resource below for support anytime he or she needs it.
If your teen or someone you know is feeling suicidal or has a serious injury, call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately.
For more information about teen self-injury such as cutting and how to get help, go to the web site of The Center for Young Women’s Health at http://www.youngwomenshealth.org/si.html, or call S.A.F.E. Alternatives (Self Abuse Finally Ends) at 1-800-DONTCUT (800-366-8288).