If you’re asking this question, you’re at least heading in the right direction. Sometimes parents of teens who self-injure by cutting make the mistake of assuming it’s a suicide attempt or simply berating them for the practice and telling them to stop. While discovering that your child practices cutting can be traumatic, trying to discover the reason behind the behavior can help you and your teen work through the underlying issues and find healthier coping techniques. Most often, cutting is a means of coping with unhappiness, but that’s not the only possible motivation.
Dulling the Pain
Typically, those who practice cutting don’t use any kind of drug to dull the pain caused by the cutting; in fact, the cutting itself is a means of dulling emotional pain. While this may seem counter-intuitive to those who have never personally dealt with a craving for self-injury, it is often the motivation. Often, those who engage in cutting can be victims of sexual abuse or frustrated over-achievers who have trouble coping with issues outside their control. Many come from homes in which expressing grief or anger is discouraged. By cutting, they take control and find expression for their emotional pain. So, rather than leading to suicide, it can lessen the chances of a suicide attempt.
By contrast, if a person who is involved in cutting is not counseled properly but simply kept from this method of coping with pain, the chances of a suicide attempt may actually increase.
Experimenting and Copying
Adolescence, which seems to start younger and younger in our culture, involves a quest for self-identity. Kids want to figure out who they are, and sometimes experimenting with self-injury can be a part of this phase, even for “normal kids.” Like doing drugs, cutting is a dangerous behavior and should not be taken lightly. Unlike drug use, though, cutting won’t make everyone feel better. It will dull the pain only for those who already have some underlying issues.
Just because you caught your teen (or tween) cutting once or twice doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is unhappy. Until recently, this practice was pretty much kept private (easy to do with long sleeves and pants), entertainment venues now showcase it, leading to kids as young as 9 years old to experiment with it. Of course, if a young person’s friends or older siblings are engaging in the practice, that kind of influence can prompt copy-cat cutting, as well, and the Goth culture is particularly prone to embrace cutting.
Whether you think your teen is using cutting as a means of coping with emotional pain or is merely experimenting or trying to fit in, you can start to help by showing your support. Instead of showing your fear or anger, you need to let your teen know that you want to help. Finding a counselor with experience in dealing with cutting can help both you and your teen understand the behavior and find more healthy ways of dealing with traumatic events.