By Patti Richards

Your once talkative and fun-loving little girl has retreated from you emotionally, and getting her to answer even simple questions feels like pulling teeth. Recently, you’ve noticed she’s traded her trendy wardrobe for baggy clothes with long sleeves and sometimes even gloves. This morning, when you asked her about a cut on her hand, she ran out the door yelling, “It’s none of your business. What am I even doing here?”

Teen girl on park benchAdmitting that your child may be struggling with self-harm is one of the hardest things a parent may ever have to do. But it can also be the first step toward hope.

Self-harm is something many teens use to cope with difficult situations, stress or strong emotions. Teens who self-injure may find a strong sense of calm and a momentary release from the intense feelings that motivated the injury.1 Unfortunately, this sense of relief is quickly replaced by the guilt and fear of being discovered. That’s why teens who cut keep their arms, legs and other areas of the body covered, even when it’s hot outside. The risk of being caught produces strong emotions, and the self-harm continues as a way to deal with the shame.

If you’re a parent of a teenager who self-harms or your suspect your son or daughter is cutting, there is hope. By understanding the motivation to cut and finding the right treatment program, your child can learn to live without self-harm.

Why Cutting?

Self-harm is also called “cutting” because teens who injure themselves usually do so by making small cuts in the skin. Razor blades, fingernails, scissors or any sharp object that can pierce the skin may be used to cut. Cutting can also take other forms of harming oneself, like scratching, hitting, biting, pulling out hair and picking at the skin.

When you get injured, your body produces natural endorphins that mimic morphine, helping you to cope with the pain. It’s a kind of built-in, natural high, which is why you experience a few seconds with little to no pain when an injury happens.

The same thing occurs when teens cut themselves. The extreme anxiety that motivates the cutting is replaced by momentary feelings of euphoria and relief. Tracy Alderman, Phd, for Psychology Today describes the feeling like a “rush or high from the act.”2 Most acts of cutting are not life-threatening, but the risk of infection and serious illness from dirty cutting surfaces makes self-harm extremely dangerous.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of cutting vary from person to person. That means parents must be keen observers of their children’s behavior on a regular basis. Some of the first things to look for in teens are changes in personality, extreme emotions and high levels of anxiety. Since the arms, legs and torso are the most common places where cuts occur, odd clothing choices, especially during warmer months, can be a signal your teen may have a problem.

Along with these signs, the Mayo Clinic lists the following as symptoms of self-harm:

  • Unexplained scars
  • Fresh cuts, bruises, scratches or other wounds to the skin
  • Excessive rubbing of a particular area to create a skin burn
  • Keeping sharp objects on hand at all times
  • Difficulties in interpersonal relationships
  • Questions about personal identity like “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”
  • Emotional instability, impulsiveness and unpredictability
  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness1

What Can Parents Do?

KidsHealth lists several things parents can do If you suspect or know your child is cutting. Controlling your own emotions is an important part of rebuilding communication. If you can’t talk to your teen without judging, condemning or yelling, you risk driving her to more cutting to relieve the guilt of being discovered. It’s natural to feel shock, anger or confusion, so finding healthy ways to deal with your own emotions while finding the right treatment path for your teen is important. Talk to a trusted friend, find a therapist who specializes in self-harm or join a support group of other parents walking through this process to care for yourself as you care for your teen.3

It’s also important to learn as much as you can about cutting, why it happens and how treatment can help. Knowledge is a powerful thing when it comes to dealing with difficult teen issues. Being able to talk to your teen in an intelligent and non-threatening way about cutting can help you and your teen get to healing the heart of what’s causing this response to stress.

Self-harm is often a signal to parents that their teen has experienced a trauma she’s afraid to talk about. Letting her know that you and her treatment team offer safe places where she can talk about what’s bothering her is an important step in the right direction.

Treatment for Self-Harm

The most important part of the treatment process for any kind of addiction is the decision to get help and stop the behavior. The same is true for self-harm. Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan David Rosen, MD, MPH, writes for WebMD, “The ultimate linchpin is — the child has to decide they’re not going to do this anymore. Any ultimatum, bribery, or putting them in a hospital is not going to do it. They need a good support system. They need treatment for underlying disorders like depression. They need to learn better coping mechanisms.”4

Comprehensive care that helps teens learn healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety and communicate about how they are feeling is the best place to begin. If you suspect your child is self-harming, call us 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about the best treatment options for you.


Sources:

1Self-Injury/Cutting.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, August 8, 2017.

2 Alderman, Tracy. “Myths and Misconceptions of Self-Injury: Part II.” Psychology Today, October 22, 2009.

3Helping Teens Who Cut.” KidsHealth, July 2015.

4 Davis, Jeanie Lerche. “Cutting and Self-Harm: Warning Signs and Treatment.” WebMD, Accessed December 14, 2017.