Keep reading for what to look for and what to do if you suspect that your teen — or a friend — is cutting.
The practice of self-injury is most often seen in adolescents and teens who are suffering from depression or anxiety. The most common form of self-injury is cutting, which involves making shallow cuts on arms, legs or somewhere else on the body. Burning of the skin with cigarettes or heated metal objects is another method, as is hair pulling or skin picking. By choosing places on their bodies that are usually covered — inner thighs or stomach, for example — someone who is injuring herself can easily hide her wounds from friends and family.
Since cutting and other forms of self-injury are easy to hide, parents need to be aware of subtle signs that their teen may need help.
There are varied reasons why someone would intentionally cut or injure herself. Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent, has seen self-injury become a more predominant behavior over the course of the past 10 years. “I've talked to many kids who have cut themselves, and the reasons vary quite a bit, from self-loathing to attention-seeking,” he says. “The most common explanation I hear, however, is that the cutting is a marked relief, a physical release of psychic pain. Most say they feel little or no physical pain at all.”
For teens who have difficulty dealing with emotional pain, cutting provides a substitute pain that they can control. “The thing to remember is that everyone engages in this behavior for their own unique reasons,” says Dr. Julie Gurner, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. “For some, they report 'releasing' their emotions through the cutting action, for others it is a 'way to feel something' because they feel numb. Some individuals might seek the attention that visible cuts provide, others may never want to call attention to it.” When teens feel overwhelmed emotionally, taking the drastic step of hurting themselves may feel easier if they don’t have adequate coping skills.
Learning to deal with emotional pain and anxiety is an important skill teens need to master as they move towards becoming young adults. Problem solving and open communication are skills that don’t always come easily to teens, and require practice. “If a young person constantly copes with mental discomfort with physical pain, they don’t learn to utilize positive coping skills when they are unhappy,” says Kathryn Stamoulis, Ph.D. “They are also at risk of seriously hurting themselves.”
Cutting and other forms of self-injury are indicators of deeper issues, and should not be ignored. Many teens are actually relieved when their cutting is discovered by a parent. Talk to your teen about the cutting in a way that isn’t judgmental but supportive. Remember that it’s not about suicide, but about dealing with heavy emotions and a lack of coping skills. “Let them know you love them, and take on the task together of getting them the help they need to get through it,” says Dr. Gurner.
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