“Cutting helps me to release anxiety. I feel better after I do it.”
“Cutting provides me with control over my emotions and allows me to express my emotional pain.”
These are the words of teens who have engaged in self-injurious cutting behaviors. Generally speaking, cutting serves as an emotional release for teens who struggle to engage in effective coping behaviors. Without the “release” cutting provides, a teen may not be able to alleviate distress. Over time, the emotional release provided by cutting, coupled with an inability to use other coping tools, can result in significant self-harm.
Although the emotional difficulties experienced by teens who engage in cutting behaviors are often quite challenging, for parents of teens with this issue, the pain of watching their child injure herself or himself can be overwhelming. It is often hard for parents to imagine that a child is in so much emotional distress that self-destructive behavior seems, to the child, to be warranted. Many parents believe that they provide their children with the love and support they need to lead emotionally healthy lives. The discovery that a child is engaging in cutting behaviors can be devastating. The distress experienced by parents is also often compounded by a lack of knowledge regarding how to help.
If parents suspect that their teen is engaging in self-injurious or cutting behaviors, they must act quickly to prevent further harm. When confronted about the behavior, teens may dismiss it and even work to convince their parents that they need this behavior in order to cope. Teens may compellingly make the argument that they are only hurting themselves, not others, so what is the harm? Although these arguments may at first seem convincing for parents, the reality is that when a teen engages in self-injurious behavior he or she is experiencing significant distress that must be addressed through more positive outlets.
When responding to the needs of your child, it is important to remember that self-injurious behavior is typically an emotional response to distress and generally not an indication that your child is considering or attempting to commit suicide. Because the act does represent a significant amount of emotional distress, parents must be willing to seek help for their child and address the underlying emotional problems that are causing the child to engage in this type of behavior. Self-injurious behavior can, of course, result in accidents which cause suicide. Professional counseling support may be needed to help the child identify what is causing the behavior and find new, healthier ways of coping.
The most difficult part for parents will be coming to terms with the reality that a child has experienced so much emotional pain that he or she could not find another way to cope with it. Parents may experience a wide range of emotions, including guilt, shame, and anger. For parents struggling with these emotions, professional support may be needed. Family therapy could also be useful.
There are no circumstances under which self-injurious behavior should be considered acceptable. Cutting behavior represents significant emotional distress for your child, and your response to this issue will be critical for ensuring your child’s emotional well-being over the long term. Helping your child learn new coping tools, and helping yourself come to terms with your own emotions about the situation, will be imperative to healing.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Michael Clatch, PsyD, therapist in Glenview, Illinois