Is your teen cutting? Are you scared and confused? Read on to learn more about how you can help you adolescent with this common but serious mental health struggle.
by Natasha Knoff, LMFT
Wendy first noticed something was wrong when her daughter kept wearing long sleeves to school, even though it was late Spring, warm and sunny. “I was worried, but didn’t know how to bring it up.”
“I felt shocked, and then angry,” John tells me at the first session. “After I got off the phone with the school social worker, all I could think was ‘Where did we go wrong?’”
Jimena’s mother got a text message from her daughter’s friend about the cutting. “I’m glad she told me…but I didn’t know what to do.”
Do these stories sound familiar to you? Do you share the same feelings of confusion, anger and shock? Please read on to learn about cutting, and how you can help you child with this problem in an effective and loving way.
What is cutting?
“Cutting” is the most common type of nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI), and is a problem among adolescents. Self-injury behavior can also take the form of burning or bruising the skin. Girls are more likely to engage in cutting than boys. Most often, the cuts are found on the forearm/wrist area or the upper arm. Your child might try to conceal the cuts with long sleeves, a stack of bracelets, or a watch. Sometimes, teens place the cuts on their upper thighs or lower abdomen as well.What Do I Say? How Do I Say It?Parents are often very unsure of how to approach their child once the cutting is revealed. I always encourage parents to express an attitude of “loving-concern” for their child’s well-being. Don’t communicate out of anger, frustration or let yourself become hysterical. Although your feelings are valid, they can negatively affect the loving conversation you need to have with your child. Start by telling them, “I want you to know that I’m aware of what’s been going on. I love you very much, and I want to help you. You’re not in trouble. We are going to get you help.”
I also emphasize an “open door policy” of communication. Avoid asking too many questions. As a parent, it’s a natural to want to know everything right away! However, cutting is a very sensitive topic and should be handled carefully. When cutting is discovered, teenagers can become extremely defensive and feel very ashamed. These feelings can make your child want to hide their thoughts and conceal their behavior even more. Tell your child, “I know this is hard to talk about. You can tell me anything without getting punished. You don’t have to do it now. We are going to talk about things, but only when you’re comfortable.”
why does my teen cut?
Many parents are afraid their child may be suicidal. However, cutting and other nonsuicidal self-injury is actually a way that children cope with negative feelings and experiences. Some children say that their sadness, anxiety and frustration is too much to handle and cutting provides a relief. Although this may be difficult to understand from the perspective of a parent, it makes “sense” to your child. There are also scientific reasons that cutting relieves emotional stress in the brain and body.
as a parent, what can i do to help?
Take your child to see a mental health professional for treatment. Cutting is motivated by strong, and overwhelming emotions. These emotions are sometimes caused by stressful situations such as relationship problems, low-self esteem, traumatic events (assault, abuse), academic pressure, etc. Additionally, your child is likely suffering from anxiety, depression or another psychiatric condition. The combination of these factors makes it hard to help your child on your own. The expert knowledge and skill of a licensed mental health therapist is critical in helping your child.
I have helped many clients overcome self-injury, and achieve emotional wellness. I also believe that providing support to parents ensures that the family grows closer in relationship, and stronger as a whole.
Cutting does not have to last forever, but should also not be considered a “phase”. Children and adolescents who harm themselves are in need of consistent parental support, and comprehensive medical care - which includes a primary focus on mental and emotional health.
Healing is possible. You only need to reach out to start the process of change.