Adolescents who hurt themselves still have much to learn about healthy ways of processing feelings and overcoming stress in relationships. They 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, they may feel ill-equipped to deal with them. Some turn to self-injury as a way to handle the emotional pain that they feel unable to manage. In this regard, the elders in the house need to intervene to stop self-harm in adolescents such as cutting.
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. They will harm themselves in this way for several reasons; they may feel numb and cutting allows them to at least feel something. Other times, they’re looking for a way to outwardly express the pain they’re experiencing internally.
For some adolescents, 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 they’re 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 adolescent.
Parents need to know that cutting rarely means that the adolescent is attempting to end his/her life. Cutting is much more about inner pain and looking for a way to be expressed and calmed. While the self-harm does provide them with a momentary respite from pain, feelings of deep shame and guilt usually follow, and knowing this can help parents avoid panic.
The best parent response is a calm voice that speaks concern and love. Parents who discover that their child is cutting should acknowledge the pain their child is feeling and offer a listening ear. They 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 adolescents who cut. If possible, find a way to arrange individual and family counseling.
Adolescents tend to keep their self-inflicted wounds out of sight, making it hard for parents to detect the behavior. If they have 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 they are having a hard time with friendships, it is all the more likely that they are struggling for a way to cope.
Girls tend to cut more often than boys. But parents of sons and daughters who cut should know that most adolescents 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 is to be emotionally available. Adolescents who cut are letting others know that they can’t manage their feelings. Having a loving and affirming adult in their life can help them move past the impulsive behavior and toward mature emotional health.