I have been working with teenage girls on a more frequent basis and the issue I have seen arise most often is self-harming. For many parents, caregivers, friends, and family members, discovering that someone you love is intentionally harming themselves can be difficult to accept and even harder to understand. In an effort to shed some light on the reasons behind self-harm (specifically cutting), I have gathered some common themes that are present in teens who cut and also some warning signs to pay attention to if you have concerns about a loved one.
What is important to understand when thinking about any self-harm behavior is that the behavior represents a small portion of what the individual is experiencing. Think of an iceberg; 90% of an iceberg’s mass is below the water. If you only look at the small portion seen above the surface, you actually miss the majority of the iceberg. Apply this same idea to a teen who is cutting and the cutting behaviors are the 10% above water, while underneath the surface you would perhaps find the reason(s) why an individual is cutting. While we only see the outward 10%, there is so much more going on underneath the surface that is connected to those self-harming behaviors. In most instances, what is below the surface represents feelings, emotions, and/or experiences that are very painful for that individual. When cutting, teens are attempting to interrupt these strong emotions or experiences and feel something else. In many ways it seems as though the physical pain is easier to tolerate that emotional pain. Teens will often report that by cutting they experience a sense of relief from their deep, painful emotions, and therefore self-harm behaviors are reinforced as teens continue to seek relief through cutting.
While cutting may serve a very real purpose, it is certainly not the healthiest or safest coping skill available and should be taken seriously. If you are concerned that someone you know is cutting, here are some warning signs to look out for:
-Covering up – the individual wears long pants/sleeves even in hot weather.
-Demanding complete privacy when getting undressed/avoiding exposure of certain areas.
-Wearing a wrist warmer or lots of bracelets (to cover cuts/scars on wrists).
-Unexplained cuts/scrapes on his/her arms, wrists, thighs.
-Frequent “accidents” – the individual may claim to be clumsy or explain away wounds with mishaps.
-Defensiveness or irritability when asked about a visible scratch/cut.
These are just a few of the signs to look for if you are concerned about someone cutting. Ideally, the best course of action to take when self-harming is present is to get that individual professional help. While you may be able to help to a certain extent on your own, more than likely there is a lot going on under the surface that needs to be addressed with the help of a professional. Through therapy individuals can learn how to heal those painful parts of themselves and adapt to using healthier coping mechanisms.
If you are reading this and you are struggling with self-harm, please know that you don’t need to struggle alone. This is a battle that can be won and there are loved ones and professionals who would love to help you find victory! We would love to hear from you if you would like help on your journey, but until then, here are some practical ways to help stop cutting:
-Start by being aware of triggers. There are likely situations, people, or feelings that trigger the desire to cut. Begin noticing these so you are not caught by surprise when they happen.
-Create a plan for what you will do instead of cutting. When the urge comes, what are some things you can do to cope in a different way or distract yourself until the urge passes? Some individuals have reported that snapping a rubber band on their wrist or holding an ice cube in their hand are effective ways to mimic the physical sensation without harming themselves. Maybe you could call a friend, go for a walk, play with your pet, watch TV, or practice deep breathing exercises. This is not an exhaustive list but simply a few ideas to help you find what might work for you.
-Seek support from friends and/or family, and a professional counselor. It is so important during this process to have other people who can help you. Cutting can be a difficult behavior to change, but it is possible!