As a parent or friend of a loved one it can be extremely difficult to discover that your child or loved one is cutting or harming themselves by inflicting pain or mutilation upon their bodies. Many questions arise, such as, why are they cutting/harming themselves? What can I do? Are they emotionally unstable? Is this a suicide attempt? Is this a cry for help? A cry for attention? How can I help? Why are you Cutting Yourself?
You may even be the teen or adolescent cutting yourself. In this case, please understand, cutting or harming yourself is a behavior which will have negative consequences, as a result. There will be scars, both emotionally and physically now and possibly in the future.
Trying to understand these behaviors can be difficult and complicated. In this article, we hope to clear up the misunderstandings behind cutting yourself and or harming yourself and to help parents and teens discover positive actions to take rather than cutting.
Why am I cutting myself?
(Foundation/KidsHealth, n.d.); has found that “for most, cutting is an attempt to interrupt strong emotions and pressures that seem impossible to tolerate. It can be related to broader emotional issues that need attention. Most of the time, cutting is not a suicide attempt (Foundation/KidsHealth, n.d.).”
Some teens cut themselves due to peer pressure — once they start, it is not so easy to stop. If not treated, the cutting can become habitual. Other teens feel pressure to be perfect and struggle to understand that failures or mistakes are sometimes a normal part of the process. Cutting yourself is used as a coping mechanism to deal with struggles or pain (emotional and physical) which can occur from many sources.
“This seems to be the only way I can cope with my pain”, stated one teen (Gaultiere, 2012). Yet, another adult states: “To feel real when I feel numb” (38 year-old woman, injuring herself since she was 14) (Gaultiere, 2012). Another contends: “You have it wrong: I’m not trying to kill myself. It’s what I do to stay alive” (Gaultiere, 2012).
Some of the feelings cutters deal with are powerful moods like anger, sadness, worthlessness, and despair that feel hard to control or too heavy to bear. Cutting is sometimes the result of trauma and painful experiences which may be too difficult to discuss with others. Teens and adolescents, as well as, some adults, feel afraid, ashamed or embarrassed to discuss the trauma. They cut or harm themselves so as not to think or feel the emotional pain.
As with most behaviors, cutting is a way for adolescents/teens to cope with anxiety, depression, child abuse, child sexual abuse, anger and even fear. Cutting yourself is one’s way of dealing with pain and possibly, emotional insecurities. There are many ongoing studies related to cutting and each differ on the aspect of cutting being a suicidal attempt. Cutting is referred to as NSSI (Non-Suicidal Self-Injury).
A NSSI implies there is no suicidal threat or intent. However, recent studies suggest that suicide should not be ruled out. Research conducted by Peterson, Freedenthal, & Andersen, discovered that “70 percent of teenagers engaging in NSSI had made at least one suicide attempt and 55 percent had multiple attempts. However, the non-suicidal and suicidal behaviors serve distinctly different purposes. Some adolescent inpatients report hurting themselves specifically to stop suicidal ideation or to stop themselves from actually attempting suicide. Consequently, Favazza, conceptualizes self-injurious behaviors without suicidal intent as “a morbid form of self-help” (Peterson, Freedenthal, & Andersen, 2008).” Although the child may not be consciously considering suicide, it is possible, due to, infections and other harmful wounds inflicted upon the body, death can occur, if not treated properly.
Cutting yourself or for others that know of someone cutting, the self-harm helps them to focus their attention elsewhere, as in the pain of the self-inflicted injury rather than the thoughts of suicide or the emotional and physical harm brought to them.
(Whitlock, 2010) concluded that “what constitutes non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is a matter of some debate, but its growing presence in mainstream and popular media as well as the growing number of anecdotal reports by physicians, therapists, and junior and senior high school counselors suggest that it may be, as some have called it, “the next teen disorder”. Referred to in the literature and media as “self-injurious behavior,” “self-injury,” “self-harm,” “self-mutilation,” or “cutting,” self-injury is typically defined as the deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue without suicidal intent and for purposes not socially sanctioned. Although most often not a suicidal gesture, it is statistically associated with suicide and can result in unanticipated severe harm or fatality” (Whitlock, 2010).
Many teens remain secretive about the cutting; hiding, lying, being offensive if confronted and go so far as to deny the actual wounds and will report them as “accidents”. This self-harming behavior is not only a cry for help, but a distinctive indicator they are not able to cope or handle painful situations without prior knowledge and learned coping skills.
During (Peterson, Freedenthal, & Andersen, 2008) research, they also noted that “In one study of high school students, 55 percent of self injurers indicated their reason for NSSI was, “I wanted to get my mind off my problems,” while 45 percent of adolescents endorsed, “It helped me to release tension or stress and relax.” When the teenager feels overwhelmed by negative feelings, NSSI can be an effective, although harmful, strategy to stop or reduce these negative thoughts and emotions, (Peterson, Freedenthal, & Andersen, 2008).””
(Foundation/KidsHealth, n.d.); indicates that in “clinical populations, self-injury is strongly linked to childhood abuse, especially childhood sexual abuse. Self-injury is also linked to eating disorders, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders. While much of this research reflects comorbidity in clinical populations, more recent studies of these relationships in community populations of youth document similar patterns, though at significantly lower levels of association. Indeed, one study found that 44% of respondents with current NSSI behavior evidenced no existing comorbid clinical conditions.” In other words, there may or may not be other underlying conditions such as, behavioral and mental disorders, such as depression.
(Foundation/KidsHealth, n.d.), “most NSSI treatment specialists and scholars agree that in the vast majority of cases NSSI is utilized to temporarily alleviate distress rather than to signal the intention to end one’s life. Indeed, some see it as a means of avoiding suicide.”
This research and these studies find that rather than hurt over a traumatic event, such as a break-up, peer pressure, failing grades, the trauma of child abuse, sexual abuse and the many other forms of pain inflicted upon them, teens, adolescents, will induce bodily harm to themselves to direct attention and their focus away from the emotional distress and pain. Drug use, alcohol abuse, cutting, self-injury are all are forms of negative coping skills and can become habitual, as well as, linger into adulthood if not treated properly. Cutting yourself is a coping mechanism, it does not mean that a person is necessarily emotionally unstable, although, again, emotional instability may be a factor and should not be discarded.
What are Indicators of Cutting?
Mayoclinic.org, who has treated patients with NSSI have included signs and symptoms of some of the indicators that a teen or adolescent may be cutting themselves:
” (Staff, n.d.) Signs and symptoms may include:
- Scars, such as from burns or cuts
- Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises or other wounds
- Broken bones
- Keeping sharp objects on hand
- Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather
- Claiming to have frequent accidents or mishaps
- Spending a great deal of time alone/Isolation
- Pervasive difficulties in interpersonal relationships
- Persistent questions about personal identity, such as “Who am I?” “What am I doing here?”
- Behavioral and emotional instability, impulsivity and unpredictability
- Statements of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness
(Staff, n.d.) “Most frequently, the arms, legs and front of the torso are the targets of self-injury because these areas can be easily reached and easily hidden under clothing. But any area of the body may be used for self-injury. People who self-injure may use more than one method to harm themselves.”
In addition, AddictionHelp Center.com provides other signs and symptoms of NSSI, they are as follows:
“Aside from physical examples that are indicative of self-injury, there are circumstantial evidences that loved ones can be suspicious of. These warning signs that an individual might be engaging in self-injury include (Addiction Help Center, n.d.):
Situational Signs and Symptoms of Self-injury
- The appearance of lighters, razors or sharp objects that one would not expect among a person’s belongings
- Low self-esteem
- Mood changes like depression or anxiety, out-of-control behavior
- Difficulty handling feelings
- Relationship problems
- Poor functioning at work, school or home
- Creating artwork that features a lot of black or red
- May sit with a pillow covering their legs or quickly change sitting position when someone enters the room
- The person may often hold ice to their skin
- The person may draw on their arms with red marker, food coloring or paint (a sign that they are wanting help)
- The person may wear a lot of bracelets or a rubber band on the wrist that they can snap whenever they need to (another sign of wanting to stop self-injury)”
What we can do to help?
- Communication: Open communication is the number one key in speaking with adolescents/teens who are cutting. Be calm when speaking with or approaching the subject. (If the child refuses to talk about the cutting and becomes angry or upset, remain calm and approach the subject again later).
- Patience: Each child is an individual and views problems and situations as separate, take this into context and do not make light of their reasons for inflicting self-harm.
- Seek professional help: It is okay to ask for assistance and/or help from professional resources.
- Teach our children how to communicate: It may be difficult for teens/adolescents to express exactly how it is they are the feeling, to put their emotions into words or they aren’t able to express these feelings. In order to assist with this process, discuss journaling. Discover activities that focus on how to put feelings into words and other healthy positive actions.
- Stay positive, do not ridicule, lay blame, belittle or shame the child.
- Activities: This can remind them, although there are problems we face every day in this world, there is also beauty in it and peace. Focus on the positive.
- Availability: Let them know you are here for them, if they need to talk about their problems, you are here to listen, guide, share and even to help them cope with the crisis.
- Alternatives: Provide alternatives to cutting: exercise, swimming, jogging, walking, singing a favorite song, art or writing.
How to Stop Cutting yourself:
- Consult an adult you can trust, school counselor, church leader, community advisor, teacher.
- Replace the cutting with healthy alternatives, breathing exercises, swimming, exercising.
- Journaling/Writing, Art.
- Talk or discuss what is bothering you, remember, you are not alone and do not have to face this alone.
Caught in the act of cutting:
It is extremely important to remain calm should you catch your child or loved one in the act of cutting.
Make eye contact with the person and in a calm, soothing voice, simply state that you would like to hold their hands for a moment to keep them safe. (Do not make sudden movements towards the person as this could cause a startled reaction resulting in severe damage due to the cutting.)
Gently place your hands in their hands and remove the instrument or hold their hands if they are cutting themselves by scratching. Remember, cutting is not necessarily an attempt at suicide, but used as a coping mechanism, however, should you suspect a suicide attempt, seek immediate assistance from a professional immediately.
Continue talking with the child until they are calm. Seek advice from professionals.
Whether your child has cut once or on several occasions, it is extremely important to address the issue and seek medical advice. Many clinics offer free assessments on cutting or NSSI for patients.
Cutting yourself is not who you are, it is a behavior associated with strong, physical and emotional pain. It is used as a coping mechanism within what is or may appear to be a crisis situation. There are resources and people available to help, reach out to them and learn positive ways to help you to cope. Only then can the healing begin…
Addiction Help Center. (n.d.). Retrieved from Signs and Symptoms of Self-Injury: http://www.addictionhelpcenter.com/signs-and-symptoms-of-self-injury/
Foundation/KidsHealth, N. (n.d.). Helping Teens Who Cut. Retrieved June 17, Retrieved from web: 2014, from Kids Health: http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/help_cutting.html#
© 1995- 2014 . The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth®. Reprinted with permission.
Gaultiere, B. (2012, August 30). Soul Shepherding For You and Your Ministry. Retrieved from Caring for People Who Cut Themselves (Help for Self-Injury): http://www.soulshepherding.org/2012/08/caring-for-people-who-cut-themselves-help-for-self-injury/
Peterson, J., Freedenthal, S., & Andersen, R. (2008, November). Nonsuicidal Self injury in Adolescents. Retrieved June 17, 2014, from Psychiatry (Edgmont): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2695720/?report=reader
Staff, M. C. (n.d.). Mayoclinic.org. Retrieved from Self-Injury/Cutting: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/self-injury/basics/symptoms/con-20025897
Whitlock, J. (2010, May 25). Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents. Retrieved from PLOS Medicine: Plos.Org/PLoS Med 7(5): e1000240. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000240