Common Question About Cutting & Self-Harm
Brittany Ryan-Berzins, Ph.D. answers commonly asked questions about self-injury.
What is cutting and what are some reasons kids choose to do it?
Cutting is any intentional breaking of the skin with a sharp object that is not intended to lead to suicide. More broadly this behavior is considered self-injury. Many teenagers also burn, bruise, and cause abrasions to themselves. People cut for two reasons 1) As a way to decrease overwhelming emotions, usually anxiety and depression. 2) or as a way to "turn on" emotions when individuals feel numb. Both use cutting as a way to manage emotions. Kids who do not have more adaptive coping strategies sometimes turn to cutting to help them cope with their emotions. You can think of it in the same way we understand alcohol and drug abuse, as a type of self-medication. Research has shown that in people who self-injure, cutting decreases their heart rate and actually leads to a feeling of calmness, very similar to the effects of alcohol and some drugs.
Is there a typical portrait of a cutter? Who is most likely to become a cutter?
Kids who cut usually have strong negative feelings and have a hard time expressing their emotions. Kids who talk about their feelings are much less likely to cut or self-injure. Kids who have more stress such as abuse or divorcing parents are more likely to cut because they experience more negative feelings. Kids who have more extreme mood swings are more likely to cut. Put simply, people who do not have good ways to help themselves feel better in situations that would make anyone feel bad are more likely to cut. This is more often girls, but research shows that boys may take excessive risks with the intention of harming themselves for the same reasons that girls cut.
How do I know if my teen is a cutter? What should I look for?
If your teen has scabs or scars on her arms or legs, you should ask her about them. Most people who cut repetitively cut in places that you might not see, such as their upper thigh. If you find a collection of sharp objects in her possession, you should ask her about them.
How do I approach my teen about the topic without pushing them away?
If you suspect that your child is injuring herself in any way, ask her in a non-judgmental and concerned way if she has ever hurt herself intentionally. Some research estimates that as many as 20% of kids have tried to self-injure. Your child is probably more familiar with the topic than you are. You can say you were reading about cutting and you want to know if he/she has ever tried to injure her/himself. Open up a dialog about it. In an effort to prevent your child from turning to self-injury, try to talk openly about feelings and teach them how to express themselves. This can be done at any stage.
What are some parental do's and don'ts when it comes to dealing with this issue at home?
Remember that most often kids are cutting to deal with bad feelings, try not to make them feel bad about cutting or it may lead to more cutting. You want to help them feel better and teach them how to comfort themselves when they feel bad. The truth is some people have stronger emotions and have a more difficult time managing them from a young age. Parents should not blame themselves or the child for this fact, but rather help them to cope better. Of course, if you learn that your child is self-injuring, you should take them to a psychologist so that a professional can help them learn to manage their emotions in healthy ways.