Way back when I was in school, I had never heard of cutting but this was 3 decades ago.  Nowadays if you’re a parent, chances are you’ve probably heard of cutting.

Cutting has existed for a long time, but more kids are trying it now because of its exposure on the media and Internet.

Cutting can be frightening–especially if you find out it is your child that’s doing it.  Cutting is not considered to be an attempt to commit suicide, but it can look and feel that way.

What is Cutting?

Cutting is a self-harm injury.  A person makes cuts on their body using a sharp object.  Usually they make cuts on their arms and legs.  Most kids will try to hide them.

At What Age Does Cutting Usually Start?

The average age a child starts cutting is 14, but the age is getting younger and younger.  Some kids who start have a hard time quitting this habit and will still be cutting into their 30’s and beyond.

Why Do Kids Cut Themselves?

There are a few different theories about why kids cut.  Most kids who self-harm are going through adolescence and are struggling to find their identity.  Some mental health professionals think of this as their way of experimenting with something and trying it out.  They see it on the Internet or a friend is doing it, so they do it too.  It’s kind of like experimenting with drugs.  They know it isn’t good, but their rational brain hasn’t formed all the way so they make impetuous and impulsive decisions.

For kids who are having difficulty with expressing their thoughts and emotions, cutting acts an escape valve (albeit a dysfunctional one).  Self-harm is similar to drugs like cocaine in that it releases endorphins in your body that creates that oh-so-wonderful feeling (I am a runner and experience this awesome feeling a lot after a fantastic run).

If a child is using cutting in an effort to release/relieve emotional pain, this is a serious indication that underlying issues need to be addressed.

If a child is emotionally and psychologically healthy, they might try cutting, but the behavior won’t continue.  With kids who have more serious underlying issues, this is a huge red flag that the child needs help–as in, therapy help.

Cutting, like an addiction,  is a way to avoid dealing with problems.  It’s a short-term solution to resolving problems that only gets worse over time.

If kids are shown a more empowering & healthy way of resolving their problems, the self-harm will stop.

Babies and young children express themselves through their behavior; as they get older they’ve got to learn how to verbally communicate.  Children and teens who cut are, in essence, regressing to a preverbal state that provides an outlet for their intensely painful emotions.  Counselors can help teach them how to communicate and express what’s going on for them in a way that’s healthy for them.

How Cutting Starts

Cutting might start due to the pain of a relationship break-up (remember how agonizing that can be as a teenager?).  It could start because of their natural curiosity.  For many kids, it is brought about because they repress emotions in their home environment.  It is not safe to express feelings like anger and sadness.   Negative emotions are punished, ignored, or suppressed.  Because they aren’t discussed, kids have nowhere to go.  One dysfunctional tool they learn to use to release and numb their inner pain is cutting.

What Cutting Usually Looks Like

Cutting will usually look like small cuts and scratches on your child’s arms and legs.  They may cut words on their skin like “fat,” “loser,” or “stupid.”  Separate from the cutting, look for out-of-the ordinary mood changes, signs of anxiety or depression, or some changes going on in school or your child’s relationships.  Are they a perfectionist?

If your child is hurting inside, the cutting will typically continue and escalate.  Like a drug addiction, your child will need to cut more and more to get the reaction (numbing, release) they need.

What Should Parents Do?

When parents first find out about their child’s cutting, some of them want to freak out. Just so you know, that’s understandable.   Some might not want to approach their child and similar to bringing up unpleasant emotions, it’s swept under the rug.  These reactions are not going to help the situation.  Also, keep in mind that cutting is not considered suicidal behavior so you don’t need to be watching them every second.  What your child needs is counseling.  Ask potential counselors if they have experience treating kids and then ask them if they have experience treating kids who engage in cutting.

If your child is against going to a counselor, try giving them something they would take in return to trying out therapy.  Try money, new clothes, more privileges–something positive they can associate to therapy so that when they need it again, they won’t be so hesitant to go.  I know of one parent who told their child when they resisted, that they would go and they’d tell the therapist all about it–didn’t they want to go to tell their side of the story?  It worked!  Another parent told their child they would pay them $100 if they went to 5 sessions, $20 each time they went.  That also worked.

Ultimately it’s the child who has to make the decision to stop the behavior.  If they don’t want to go, maybe think of going yourself with your spouse/partner/ex so your child can see it’s okay. You can learn how to show your child different tools for expressing their full range of emotions and provide them with the loving guidance and support they need.  What they need is to learn new tools (i.e. coping mechanisms) for handling stress and painful emotions.  This is the path to an emotionally intelligent and healthy child.

If you child doesn’t want to go to counseling no matter what you try, then you might want to draw up a contract having them sign it which says they won’t harm themselves.  Tell them by signing this contract you trust them to make more empowering choices (and give them some ideas on how to express their emotions–like journaling, talking about it, etc).  If they do cut, then as per your agreement you will bring them to a counselor to break the cycle of self-harm.  Like any addiction, ending self-harm is hard to do by oneself.

References

WebMD (2015).  Cutting and self-harm:  Warning signs and treatment.  Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/cutting-self-harm-signs-treatment?page=2