From the very first moment parents lay their eyes on their children, they’re consumed with keeping them safe. Parents of toddlers hover nearby during the child’s wavering first steps, hands outreached to catch and stop a fall. At the playground, parents watch from the sidelines, coaching children to stay off dangerous equipment and to stop running across the hot blacktop. When kids play sports, parents come to each game armed with gauze, bandages and antibacterial spray. Each injury is treated with kisses, bandages and loving care until it’s completely healed. It’s a parent’s duty, and parents often take this task quite seriously.
These devoted parents may be amazed to discover that their children, the little ones that were protected for so many years, are harming themselves when they enter the teen years. Cutting, or self-mutilation, is common in teens, and it can be devastating for both teens and their parents.
But with help, parents and their teens can uncover the reasons for the cutting, and the teen can heal and recover.
Teen Cutting Addiction
Teens who cut use sharp objects like pins, scissors and knives to make shallow incisions. They may cut anywhere on their bodies, but the arms, legs, abdomen and genital areas are common. Teens tend to choose one area to attack. When the cuts heal, the teen may attack the same area again, and as a result, scarring from cutting can be quite deep and difficult to deal with. To some teens, these scars are a reminder of their own power, and they may treasure them. Others may be deeply ashamed of their scars. Teens who cut may engage in the activity every day, while others may only cut when they’re under severe stress or tension. A bad grade, a fight with a friend or a difficult memory may all trigger an episode of cutting.
According to the website Parenting.org, approximately one in eight people engages in cutting or some other form of self-harming activity. Adolescent girls are most commonly associated with cutting, but males can also cut. Determining why these people choose to cut can be difficult, as it seems that all cutters have their own personal reasons for performing the activity. For example, some teens report that cutting helps them with a deep emotional pain that doesn’t seem to be healing. Since they cannot address and treat this inner pain, they create outward expressions of pain that they can treat. Other teens report that cutting gives them a sensation of control. They may not be able to control their emotional experience of pain, but they can control their physical experience of pain. Some teens cut due to rage. They may not be able to hurt others, but they can hurt themselves. And finally, some teens cut simply because their friends do so, and they’d like to fit in with those they admire.
Some teens who cut face isolation from their peers for their activities, but they may find that the Internet provides support for their actions.
According to a study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, there were more than 400 websites devoted to cutting in 2006, and most of these sites portrayed cutting as a healthy or acceptable activity.
These sites might encourage some vulnerable teens to keep cutting.
Most experts believe that teens who cut aren’t attempting to kill themselves or cause serious harm. Instead, these teens are using the physical pain of cutting to deal with an emotional pain. However, this line can be a bit blurry. Teens who cut have an emotional problem that is overwhelming and isn’t being addressed properly. If this emotional problem is not ever addressed, these teens could conceivably commit suicide as a result. And some teens do cut due to overwhelming feelings like this. A study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that the most common reason cutters performed the act was to, “get relief from a terrible state of mind,” but the second most common reason was “to die.”
For some cutters, it’s a cry for help that could prove dangerous if left unheeded.
Cutting and Addiction
Cutting may start as an isolated event, but it can progress just like an addiction. The adolescent brain likes to make quick connections, and it tends to remember when something caused significant relief. If the teen feels terrible and dejected and then feels much better after cutting, the brain may remember this sensation. When the tension begins to mount once more, the brain may call out for the teen to engage in cutting, to make the pain stop.
It’s important to understand the power of the brain in this process.
As the person cuts, the brain releases dopamine, which is often called the “feel-good” chemical. It’s a powerful sensation, and some teens become hooked on the dopamine rush that cutting brings. The more they cut, and the stronger rush they feel, the more likely they may be to cut again. It’s the same pathway that springs to life in addictions to drugs like heroin and cocaine, and it can be tough to conquer without help.
That’s why it’s so very important to recognize the symptoms of cutting, and get teens the help they need to stop the behavior.
What to Watch For
Many teens who cut consider it a private activity, and they may go to great lengths to keep it hidden. These teens aren’t likely to cut themselves in front of their parents, but there are still some warning signs that can indicate that cutting is a problem for that teen.
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, teens who cut may:
- Need long periods of isolated time in the bathroom or bedroom
- Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants or heavy bracelets to cover up cuts
- Stash sharp objects such as scissors, pins or knives in their rooms
- Display burns, missing hair or other self-inflicted injuries
Some parents discover their children’s cutting behaviors due to the intervention of concerned friends. Sometimes, while the teen may not tell the parent about the cutting, the teen might encourage other friends to cut, too. It’s a method of normalizing the behavior for the teen, making it seem more acceptable. These friends may grow concerned and speak directly to parents after these revelations.
Teens may also inadvertently display their cuts to their parents. While these teens might claim the cuts were caused by pets, falls or some other innocent action, parents of teens with repeated injuries should take note and suspect that cutting is occurring.
Dealing With Emotions
When parents discover their children are causing deliberate self-harm, they may feel incredibly sad, angry or even guilty. While it might be tempting to yell, cry or even punish the child for the behavior, it’s important to remember that the teen is behaving in this way due to some form of internal emotional distress. The teen isn’t trying to cause the parent harm, and the teen may not even have true control over the behavior. Rather than reacting emotionally, the Nemours Foundation suggests that parents take time away from the teen to gather their thoughts, so they can provide real help the teen needs. Taking a walk, talking with a friend or having an isolated crying session can help alleviate momentary tension so parents can focus on the task at hand and provide meaningful help to the teen that needs it so desperately.
When some parents discover that their children are cutting, they contact their own mental health counselors. Here, they can find out more about cutting, and they can identify therapists that can help their children heal. At Newport Academy, we’re happy to talk to parents with questions. We provide help to teens with cutting issues, and we’d be happy to explain our services, or help you find another avenue of therapy to explore. Please contact us if you’d like to find out more.
Forms of Help
Since teens may cut for so many reasons, there’s no one way to treat a cutting addiction. If the purpose of treatment is to get the teen to stop cutting, the first step is to address why the teen is cutting in the first place. Often, this means attempting to determine if the teen has an underlying condition such as:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Substance abuse
These issues might all be treated in slightly different ways, but often, counseling plays a major role in the healing process. One form of counseling in particular might be helpful for teens who tend to cut. This form of counseling, known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, attempts to teach teens to truly analyze their thoughts before acting upon them. In this form of therapy, teens might be asked to think about why they want to cut, and give voice to that thought and work through it instead of cutting. For example, an internal thought, such as “I want to cut my arm,” might be translated to, “I can’t stand to think about the death of my father.”
Once that grief is addressed, the urge to cut might also stop.
It can be transformative help. The Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults reports that teens who cut might also benefit from family therapy. While any form of adolescent mental illness can cause rifts in the family, an addiction to cutting may be one of the most damaging problems a family can endure. Parents may feel conflicted about when to punish and when to praise. Teens in recovery may feel as though they’re given no privacy. Parents may blame themselves for the episodes. The cutting may even have its roots in abuse that took place within the family.
By attending family therapy sessions, the group can come together to air these concerns and work through them, and parents can learn to walk a fine line between assisting their teens and holding them back from learning important recovery lessons.
While there have been no medications specifically developed to treat a cutting addiction, the Mayo Clinic reports that some teens benefit from treatment with antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. These therapies may help the teen feel more comfortable and relaxed, and the urge to cut may abate as a result; however, not all programs use medications in the treatment for cutting. It’s deeply dependent on what is causing the teen to cut in the first place.
If your teen is cutting or performing some other form of self-harm, we’d like to help. Please contact us today to find out more about our programs.