(by Dawson McAllister)
I have taken hundreds of calls from teens and young adults and written multiple blogs on TheHopeLine addressing the issue of self-harm or cutting. For over ten years now I’ve been dealing with this subject, and while it is a reality that many of our teens and young adults face on a daily basis. They tell me over and over that they wish their parents understood why they self-harm.
So I’d like to try to shed some light on this subject from what I’ve learned over the years by looking at what self-harm involves, why people do it, and tips on how to help someone who is struggling.
Simply put – Most often the point of cutting is ultimately to cover over a much deeper emotional pain.
Self-harm is a way of coping with overwhelming emotional feelings such as sadness, self-hate, emptiness, or guilt by purposefully inflicting injury on oneself. For those who struggle with painful, emotional issues, self-injury is a way to release their internal suffering and cover up feelings that are not easy for them to express. Since they can’t control their emotional pain, they control their physical pain through inflicting harm on themselves.
Cutting is the treating of one pain with another. A cutter’s life is one of choices between one kind of physical pain or facing a much greater emotional pain. The problem with cutting, as with any addiction, is that by harming themselves, they never really confront their deepest feelings.
Cutting also provides a temporary high. It triggers your body’s chemistry. The body naturally produces a chemical compound called endorphins. Endorphins are released to help the body deal with pain and stress. In fact, endorphins cause an actual high designed to cover over real physical pain. And cutting causes real physical pain. Sometimes people cut because of peer pressure and the high associated with it, but most often it’s rooted in emotional pain.
It is important to note that people who self-harm are not trying to kill themselves. It is a secretive and incredibly harmful addiction affecting MANY teens and young adults:
- Each year one in five females and one in seven males engage in self-harm.
- 90% of people who engage in self-harm begin in their teen or pre-teen years.
- Nearly 50% of those who engage in self-harm have been sexually abused.
Exact numbers of people who cut are difficult to come by, since most cutters conceal their addiction and injuries. Yet rates of cutting are much higher among younger people, with the average age starting around 12-years-old.
This is why Samantha says she cuts: “Every time I cut, everything that I feel is GONE! This fall it will be three years that I have been addicted. And I can’t help it. I can’t go over two days without it. It is what brings me up so I don’t have to feel emotional pain, because I’ve learned physical pain is nothing compared to emotional.”
And Christina said, “I know a girl that started cutting a couple years ago. She was doing it because of some family problems, so I started doing it too, not because of what they said but because it’s the only way for me to help myself deal with all of the feelings I hold inside.”
Listen to what Cassandra had to say when she called into my radio show.
Forms of Self-Harm:
Self-harm can take on many forms, the most common form is cutting…often people will cut their arms or upper thighs, stomach, hips…any place that can be easily be covered up by clothing. Other forms of self-harm include: burning or scalding skin, biting, sticking objects into skin, etc.
If you think your child may be cutting but you aren’t sure, here are some warning signs:
- Unexplained injuries, wounds or scars such as cuts, bruises or burns, typically on the wrists, arms, thighs or chest.
- Blood stains on clothing, towels, bedding, in the sink or bathroom.
- Sharp objects like razors, knives, needles, glass
- Rapidly decreasing supply of bandages, face cloths or paper towels or even socks or underwear. Anything that may not be noticed as missing that could clean up the blood.
- “Accidents” that happen frequently; claims to just be “clumsy” or uses other excuses to explain why
- Covering up with long sleeves and other clothing to hide injuries
- Wanting to be alone for long periods of time in the bedroom or bathroom
- Isolation and irritability
- Intense emotional trauma, either past or current, such as losing a loved one, parent’s divorce or bullying
Your child will try to hide their addiction from you as long as they can, there is a deep sense of shame associated with cutting. If you suspect they may be self-harming, be brave enough to ask them about it gently…maybe even indirectly…tell them what you’ve observed and why you are worried, assuring them all the time that you love them and want to help. An understanding parent can be their life-line. It was for Sara: “I was lucky enough to have an incredibly understanding and supportive mother who was an open door for me to speak to whenever I felt low or had the need to self-harm. She wouldn’t panic or freak out; she would sit back and listen to me when I needed it or help me when I asked for it.”
Your child may be cutting and not even know why they are doing it. If they haven’t ever taken the time to deal with whatever issue is causing them to self-harm, they may be self-harming for relief and not even realize the deeper problem. But now that they’ve started cutting, it is hard to stop. Their brain has connected the false sense of relief with cutting, and the addictive cycle has begun. They self-harm…they feel guilty about it…they don’t know how to deal with their guilt…so they self-harm.
Someone left this comment on my blog: “I used to cut because I felt like it was the only way to feel something other than the hurt and confusion and self-hate that was driving me insane.”
So what should you do if you discover your child is self-harming:
- Stay calm and rational. Your immediate reaction might be shock, disappointment, anger and perhaps even guilt. You might want to say things like, “What is wrong with you?” “Do you really need attention that bad?” “What did I do so wrong to you, to drive you to this?” The comments and displeasure you feel may be rational, but it is the last thing they likely want to hear.
- REALLY listen and seek to understand. Often someone who cuts feels like no one understands them. Do NOT be one more person that says, “Why would you do this to yourself? It doesn’t make any sense?” Gently ask them questions to get them talking about their habit. It’s important they tell their story. As they tell their story, they are coming out of their emotional hiding place and saying they don’t want these horrible feelings to have control over them any longer.You don’t need to have all the answers. Just listen!
- Find a counselor. If they won’t tell their story to you, maybe they will talk to a counselor. Encourage them to open up to someone that can help them process the pain in their life that is causing them to self-harm.
- Encourage your child that you BELIEVE in them and love them. Tell them you know they will have the strength to stop when they decide to and that you will support them however you can. Offer to be their accountability partner, if they want. You can be the person they call to distract themselves from cutting when the temptation arises.
- Educate yourself. This blog is a good starting point, also check out our free eBook on Understanding Self-Harm and anything else you can get your hands on. The more you understand and the less they have to explain to you the easier on them.
- Offer them resources on the subject of self-harm. We have created a link with many helpful resources available all in one convenient place. Self-Harm Resources http://info.thehopeline.com/selfharm-resources You could simply text or email your child this link and say…”When you are ready…” . You can also give them a link to TheHopeLine so they can talk with a HopeCoach www.thehopeline.com/gethelp. Sometimes talking to someone removed from the situation is helpful.
- Trust God has a plan for them. God is bigger than cutting!! He can help them overcome the addiction. Pray that God gives them the strength and desire they need to stop cutting and find HOPE.
As your child begins to recover, they will likely still feel the cravings to cut again. Here are some suggestions on how they can deal with those powerful urges.
Practical ideas to help someone resist the urge to cut:
One of the best ways to let the urge to cut pass is by distracting yourself with someone or something else. This will allow the moment to pass when you’re feeling the deep cravings to cut, and get your mind off of it. It’s impossible for your mind to think about two things at the exact same time. Here are some ideas on how to distract yourself:
- Call a friend or meet them in person. Talk about what’s comfortable. The key is to keep talking.
- Take a shower. This will help invigorate your body, so physically it too, is distracted. (Make sure there are no razors in the shower).
- Exercise walk, run, ride your bike, climb, swim, do yoga, etc. While you are exercising, your mind is more likely to think about something other than cutting.
- Watch television or a non-violent, healthy movie.
- Write in your journal learn to express your feelings through writing.
- Create art, or some kind of creative hobby.
The point is: Find something else to do.
If none of these ideas are possible at the moment, try finding a substitute for the cutting sensation.
- Rub an ice cube on your skin, instead of cutting.
- Wear a rubber band on your wrist, and snap it when you feel the urge.
- Draw on your skin with a red marker in the place you would normally cut.
- Put temporary tattoos in the places you have the urge to cut.
The urge to cut will go away in time, but only if it isn’t acted upon. Each time the addiction is fed, the more likely they will feel the urge to cut the next time they feel the same emotional pressure. As with any addiction, the more they stand against the urge, without giving in, the more their urges will decrease.
As a parent never underestimate the power that your love and concern has in helping your child get better. This is what Hannah wrote to me:
Hello, my name is Hannah…for me…cutting was attention to myself. I felt alone. Being alone is hard especially since they’re billions of people who live on this planet….for me my silent cries were answered by the people I thought could never understand…my parents. It was the actual hardest thing to tell both of them. The second hardest when they asked how long this had been occurring. And the saddest thing to see them crying when I showed them all the scars I had. But it was the tangible help I received [from them] that became the most amazing thing to ever come out of my “problem.”
For additional help and information, click here to download TheHopeLine® eBook on self-harm.