Teenagers who are hurting or frustrated still have much to learn about healthy ways of processing feelings and overcoming stress in relationships.
Teens are just becoming responsible for their own friendships and are establishing an identity separate from that of their parents and family.
This is a lot to learn and when there are stressors in those arenas, the teen may feel ill-equipped to deal with them. Some teens turn to self-injury, or cutting, as a way to handle the emotional pain that they feel unable to manage.
Cutting is a broad term for any sort of self-inflicted mutilation. Cutting can actually be self-inflicted burns with a cigarette, piercing oneself with a sharp object like a pencil, scratching oneself or using a razor blade to make shallow cuts in the skin. Kids will harm themselves in this way for several reasons. The child may feel numb and cutting allows them to at least feel something. Other times, the teen is looking for a way to outwardly express the pain he or she is experiencing internally.
For some teens, cutting releases endorphins. Endorphins are pleasure chemicals naturally produced within the body. Long distance runners sometimes report a ‘runner’s high’ that is attributable to endorphins. When teens are in emotional pain, injuring themselves actually creates a type of self-soothing. Whether they feel something, pain or just a release, cutting temporarily calms the upset teen.
Parents need to know that cutting rarely means that the teen is attempting to end his/her life. Cutting is much more about a teen’s inner pain and looking for a way to be expressed and calmed. While the self-harm does provide the teen with a momentary respite from pain, feelings of deep shame and guilt usually follow. Knowing this can help parents avoid panic.
Teens who cut need emotional comfort
The best parent response is a calm voice that speaks concern and love for the child. Moms and dads who discover that their teen is cutting should acknowledge the pain their child is feeling and offer a listening ear. Teens will feel safe and comforted when parents present a plan of action in a loving, level tone.
That plan of action, after refusing to over-react, should include connecting with a counselor. When choosing a counselor, be sure that he/she has experience working with teens who cut. If possible, find a way to arrange individual and family counseling.
If a parent finds his or her teen in the process of cutting (or burning or piercing), the sight of blood and the extreme nature of the behavior may tempt him or her to put the child in the car and drive to the emergency room. Unless the cuts are deep (which they most often are not), this can backfire. Hospitals may be less than sympathetic to a self-inflicted wound.
Teens tend to keep their self-inflicted wounds out of sight, making it hard for parents to detect the behavior. If the teen has unexplained injuries, keeps sharp objects in their room, wears long sleeves and long pants even in hot weather and shuts themselves up in the bedroom or bathroom for long periods when they are upset, these could be signs of self-harm. If these things are observed at a time when there is family tension or when the teen is having a hard time with friendships, it is all the more likely that the teen is struggling for a way to cope.
Girls tend to cut more often (60%) than boys. But parents of sons and daughters who cut should know that most kids cut a few times and then stop on their own. A minority will develop an ongoing habit of cutting. In either case, the most important thing for the parent to do is be emotionally available. Teens who cut are letting others know that they can’t manage their feelings. Having a loving, affirming adult in their life can help them move past the impulsive behavior and toward mature emotional health.