Teen cutting is a difficult thing to understand, particularly for parents who have never been exposed to any kind of self-injuring behavior. When parents first discover that their teenage son or daughter is cutting, they often experience a range of emotions. These may include feelings of shock, fear, anger, sadness, disappointment, panic, self-blame, and confusion. It is important for parents to be informed about what cutting is and what it is not, as well as which parental responses will be helpful for their teen. This article is the first in a two-part series on teen cutting in which I focus on what parents need to know about cutting. In the following article I will focus on what parents need to do about it.
For the sake of this article I define cutting as the use of a sharp object to penetrate the skin deeply enough to draw blood. Cutting can take place on any part of the body and can range in severity from scratches to deep cuts that require medical attention. This article does not address other forms of self-harm, such as self-inflicted burns, although many of the ideas presented here can be extended to any form of self-harm.
What Cutting Is
When teens talk about cutting they describe it in a variety of ways. Here are some common phrases I’ve heard from teens about cutting:
- “When I cut I feel relief, it feels like I’m getting the pressure out.”
- “I feel flat and dull, cutting reminds me that I’m alive.”
- “I cut after I binge because I feel like I should be punished and the scars remind me not to binge again.”
- “It’s the only thing that gets my emotions out.”
Cutting Provides Emotional Relief
For those who have never experienced cutting it is difficult to imagine how self-harm could lead to feelings of relief. But the reality is that very often the emotional experience people have around cutting is just that – a sense of relief or soothing. It’s possible that these feelings occur due to the chemical changes that physical pain (and the end of physical pain) produce in the brain. However, whatever the reason, it is important for parents to understand that teens cut because (unfortunately) cutting “works” by providing short-term relief of emotional pain.
Cutting as Self-Punishment
In addition to emotional relief, cutting sometimes also involves an element of self-punishment for whatever the teens feels is bad or wrong about themselves. This may be something they did (was mean to someone, binged) or something they dislike about their identity or character. Self-punishment can include feelings of guilt and shame, or a more general sense of “wrongness” about oneself or one’s body.
A “Cry for Help”
Traditionally, cutting has been understood as a “cry for help.” I think this is true, but I’m also cautious about using this language. Many teens resent the idea that they cut for attention, both because they may not feel this is true and also because they (accurately) experience that cutting is much more complex than an “I need help.” In my experience, teens who cut often experience high levels of ambivalence around whether or not they need and want help. They may go to great lengths to hide their cuts, or they may cut in an area that can easily be seen by others (e.g. low on the wrist). Some teens will leave the evidence of cutting readily visible (bloody towels in the bathroom garbage or blood on the sleeves of pajamas), whereas others will not. In any case, cutting is a clear indication that an individual is struggling to manage their emotional pain in a healthy way – and this is enough of a “cry for help” for any parent to take action.
What Cutting Is Not
It is very important to have an understanding of what cutting is, but in many cases knowing what cutting is not can be just as helpful. One of the first things I tell parents about cutting is that it is most often not a suicide attempt, and it may not be an indicator of a desire to die. Cutting and other forms of self-harm often fit into what is called Non-Suicidal Self Injury, or NSSI. All this means is that people who cut are not necessarily suicidal and are not necessarily trying to commit suicide when they cut. If an individual is cutting they are clearly under mental and emotional distress, and may, therefore, also be suicidal, but the two things (cutting and suicidality) do not always go together. A trained professional counselor will seek to determine whether an individual who is cutting is also at risk of suicide.
In some cases, cutting has been viewed as an attempt to manipulate others by inducing fear and using the threat of self-harm to get what they want. In my experience this is rare and does not need to be a concern for the vast majority of parents. If a parent is concerned that their teen is using self-harm as a manipulation tactic, my advice is that they talk this through thoroughly with a professional counselor to determine whether this is an accurate perception and to decide on an appropriate course of action.
Christian Counseling Can Help You to Address Teen Cutting
If you are the parent of a teen who is struggling with cutting or with other forms of self-harm, I encourage you to reach out to a professional Christian counselor for support. A trained Christian counselor will seek to understand the reasons behind your teen’s cutting, will make an evaluation of your teen’s safety and suicidality, and will work with your teen to help him or her develop healthy ways to cope with difficult emotions and experiences. Be sure to check back next month for the second part in this series about what parents need to do when they discover their teen is cutting.
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