You suspect that an adolescent has self-inflicted cutting injuries and you are naturally alarmed. This behavior is known as self-mutilation and the most common form is cutting. What is cutting? Cutting is one way in which a person uses self-harm as a method of coping, albeit not a healthy way of coping. Adolescents typically self-harm to “feel alive” or to divert themselves from overwhelming emotions such as anger, sadness, or anxiety. Some will cut as a way to relieve stress or feel in control of their life. A small segment of those who self-harm are seeking to “purify” their bodies. Cutting behavior is frequently linked to low self-esteem and depression. Girls, more than boys, opt to cut. Such self-harming behavior can be risky; however it is not typically indicative of suicidal thoughts or attempts on one’s life.
Some warning signs of cutting are: scars, cuts, scratches, sporting long sleeves or pants that cover their exposed skin and blaming such recurring injuries on accidents or pets.
Teens that are at risk for cutting often:
- may have friends who self-injure
- may have experienced abuse (sexual, physical or emotional)
- may have overly-intrusive parents
- are impetuous
- highly critical of themselves
- lack problem-solving skills
What should you do, as a parent, after making such an upsetting discovery?
It is important to keep calm and not get angry with your child. Anger could drive them to cut more. It is not helpful, nor loving to criticize or shout at your adolescent. Calmly let the adolescent know that you have noticed injuries that appear to be self-inflicted. Reassure your teen of your love and let them know that you care about why they are self-injuring. Many teens will at first deny they are cutting; however addressing their behavior in a calm, non-critical and loving manner is a crucial step in the healing process. It is instinctual for a parent to demand that their child immediately quit the self-harming behavior. However, an adolescent who is coping via cutting must learn healthy ways to cope and are unable to just stop cold turkey. To demand your teen stop using one of their methods of coping, no matter how abhorrent it is to you, is simply not feasible.
Assessing the seriousness of cutting is dependent upon; the gravity and frequency of the acquired injuries, the incidence of accompanying symptoms, and the age of the child. If the cutting is serious, the adolescent is 11 years old or younger, and there are signs of depression or other mental health issues then the gravity of the situation is at a higher level. A wise step would be to make an appointment with either their pediatrician or your family doctor, and then to find a professional therapist who specializes in self-harm behavior and teens. The therapist can guide you in focusing on being the parent while they journey with your child in finding better methods of coping.
As a teacher, what should you do if you suspect a student is self-harming?
Your school should have a contingency plan for such situations, but they may not. The first step would be to alert your school counselor, or nurse, and/or administrators. Schools will either make a threat assessment on campus or suggest the parent seek an outside psychiatric evaluation to determine the next steps. If the adolescent is in need of a psychiatric evaluation then the parents are responsible for seeking treatment. Some parents will not be amenable for personal or religious reasons and would most likely require a call to your state’s Child Protective Services to investigate if there is medical neglect in the situation. An experienced school counselor knows it is not wise to promote a process group of cutters because self-harm can be contagious and leads to copy-cats. The mimics may do so because of the attention the students who cut are receiving or they may just be curious about the experience of cutting.
Self-harm is most likely a compulsion behavior and needs professional help to stop the worrisome behavior. Treatment characteristically entails helping the client recognize what triggers their desire to cut and how to therefore cope in a constructive manner. Counseling can aid the client is getting to the root of their psychological difficulties and to express their emotions in a more optimistic way.
"Turn Yourself to me, and have mercy on me, For I am desolate and afflicted. The troubles of my heart have enlarged; Bring me out of my distresses! Look on my affliction and my pain, And forgive all my sins." Psalm 25:16-18
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