Last month I posted an article about what parents need to know about teen cutting. This month’s article continues the conversation by focusing on what parents need to do when they learn their teen is cutting. Because every teenager and every family is unique, there is no one right answer for every situation. Instead what I’m offering are broad guidelines about more and less helpful ways of responding, as well as encouragement to seek consultation with a trained counselor who can attend to the unique needs of your teen and family.
A Balanced Response to Teen Cutting
One of the difficulties facing parents who have discovered that their teen is cutting is finding the balance between overreacting (panicking, displays of anger, getting the teen into “trouble” for cutting, trips to the ER when this is clearly not warranted) and underreacting (ignoring the signs and evidence, not seeking professional help, writing it off as “just part of being a teen,” or being scared into inaction for fear of making it worse). Overreacting will communicate to your teen that you don’t understand and that you are too distressed to be constructive. Underreacting will communicate to your teen that you don’t take them seriously and also prevents them from getting the help they need. Some teens will much prefer that you underreact than overreact, but neither option is in your teen’s best interest.
Overreacting to Your Teen’s Self-Harm
If you are a parent who tends to overreact in situations like this, it may be important to think ahead about how to remain calm if you discover your teen has cut again. If you find yourself becoming anxious or angry, consider taking a minute to step back from the situation. Take some deep breaths and remind yourself that what your teen needs in this moment is for you to be calm. Remember that this is not necessarily a suicide attempt, that many teens engage in self-harm, and that this is an opportunity for you to help your teen through a difficult time. It is normal to feel anxious, scared, and confused, but the time to work through these emotions is with another adult or a counselor, not with your teen.
The Under-Reacting Parent
If you are a parent who tends to underreact, ask yourself whether your under-reaction is due to fear or anxiety, and whether those emotions are preventing you from advocating for your teen’s health. If your teen is cutting – whether for her first or her hundredth time – she needs to see a counselor. The reality that many teens experience cutting does not mean that this is “just part of being a teen.” Rather it indicates that your teen is under distress and needs help learning how to respond to that distress constructively.
The Parenting Mindset
I have found that there are three essential aspects of a parent’s mindset that help a parent respond constructively to their teen’s cutting. These are:
Sometimes parents have a hard time taking a teen’s world seriously. This means that a parent may find it hard to understand how “drama” at school or a bad grade on a test could rattle their teen severely enough to lead to cutting. Effective empathy is not necessarily about empathizing with the “objective” situation, but rather with what your teen subjectively feels (hurt, alone, worthless, sad). Parents who empathize effectively resonate with how hard life feels to their teen, even if the objective situation is minor in the parent’s eyes. This kind of emotional empathy can help your teen to feel understood and may open doors for more communication and trust.
Whereas empathy involves resonating with your teen’s subjective experience of the world, determining the consequences of cutting is a place for objective parenting. When I use the word “consequences” I do not mean that your teen is to be punished or to get into trouble for cutting. Your teen is not in trouble – she is not being “bad,” but is rather struggling to manage her world in a healthy way. So in the same way that when your teen breaks a bone you take her to the doctor to get an x-ray, when your teen cuts you take her to a counselor for help and support. Objective parenting means making clear the consequences of your teen’s behavior, without judgment or condemnation, but just as a matter of fact reality. You can even empathize with how much your teen does not want to see a counselor, or that it must be frustrating to have this all happening, but you still need to remain objective about what is going to happen as a result of the cutting.
If a teen is making decisions that are clearly self-defeating or self-destructive (cutting, drug abuse, eating disorders) it becomes the parent’s job to advocate on behalf of the teen’s best interest. There are times when your teen will need to make poor decisions and learn from the natural consequences. However, when a teen is making overtly self-destructive decisions it becomes time for the parent to step in and take action. Your teen may try to convince you that it is best to let them “figure this out on my own” or that it will be fine “if you’ll just leave me alone.” In such a case you might let them know that you will be happy to offer them more freedom as soon as their actions show they can truly care for themselves and make decisions in their long-term best interest. Again, this is not about punishment or getting them into trouble, but about advocacy as they struggle through a difficult time. Carl Pickhardt has a great article on this entitled “When Adolescents Become Their Own Worst Enemy” – check it out by clicking here.
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 self-harming behaviors, this is the time to consider what Empathy, Objectivity, and Advocacy will look like for you. My hope is that your advocacy will include seeking help for your teen from a professional Christian counselor, as well as advocating for yourself and finding the support you need as you work to navigate these difficult parenting paths. Take a step towards that advocacy today by finding out how Christian counseling can help you deal with teen cutting.
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