When teenagers talk about cutting, what the are referring to is the use of sharp objects (razor blades, scissors, fingernails, keys, etc.) to make cuts or scratches on the body. Cutting can take the form of simple cuts and scratches, or the carving of words or images into the skin.
Cutting stems from an inability to cope with intense emotions
Think about a balloon that is over-inflated to the point of near bursting, and how letting some of the air out diminishes the stress on the latex. For people who cut themselves, the self-harm works as an emotional release valve when they have feelings that are too intense for them to handle. Although self-destructive, cutting is different from attempting suicide.
According to Wendy Lader, president and clinical director of S.A.F.E. (Self Abuse Finally Ends) Alternatives in St. Louis, there is a contagion around cutting. Teenagers may hear about other people cutting, and then, when they are in emotional distress, they may consider self-harm as an option for relief (US News). Because of this contagion, it is important to talk to your kids about self-harm. Discuss their feelings with them, and offer alternatives to releasing intense feelings, including crying, exercise, journaling, or seeing a counselor. Model healthy emotional behavior and discuss how you handle stress and intense feelings with your kids.
Some signs that your teen may already be cutting themselves include long periods of time spent in the bathroom or alone in their bedroom, finding razors in the garbage, an insistence on keeping their skin covered, or disordered eating. Self-harm isn’t just limited to cutting; it may include burning, biting, picking at the skin, hitting oneself, or pulling out hair.
If you suspect your child is cutting him or herself, open the door for communication. Do not respond when you are upset. First, process your own feelings and remind yourself that your child self-harming is not your fault. Once you are calm, gently confront your child about the cutting. Do not minimize his or her feelings or treat cutting as attention-seeking behavior. Cutting can be a sign of depression, compulsive behaviors, perfectionism, grief, or other mental health issues.
Don’t keep the cutting a secret
Obviously, don’t be indiscreet, and respect your child’s right to privacy about their mental health, but do not prioritize your relationship with the child over getting him or her help (New York Times). For many teens, cutting works as a release because it gives them a sense of control, and they may ask you to keep their secret. Emphasize that you love them and that self-harm is not a healthy way for them to cope with their feelings, and then find help in the form of a mental health professional who your child can trust.
It may be tempting to hide all sharp objects in your home, but self-harming behavior can take many forms, making it impractical or impossible for you to protect your teen entirely. Instead, keep an open dialogue with your kids about their feelings and stresses, model healthy emotional behavior, and respond calmly and lovingly to any suspicions you have that your child is engaging in self-harm.