Recognizing the Signs of Kids Who Cut Themselves
Most of us squirm at the thought of deliberately cutting our bodies, yet each day across this country there are many teenagers who do just that. For families affected by this illness, it is important to understand why teenagers do it, how to identify the behavior and what to do if you suspect a child may be engaging in self-injury.
Which Teens Are Most at Risk?
teens drawn to this type of self-injury will use anything sharp enough to cut their skin. Although some use knives, other cutting tools may include thumbtacks, staples, pens, fingernails and barrettes. The majority of them hide the markings, which makes it difficult for parents to identify that a child is engaging in such behavior.
Dr. Lisa Boesky, a child and adolescent psychologist in San Diego, Calif., and author of Juvenile Offenders With Mental Health Disorders (American Correctional Association, 2002), explains that no one type of person is immune to self-injury, but there tends to be a common profile. Most often, people who self-mutilate are Caucasian females in their teenage or young adult years who generally come from middle- to upper-class families. However, self-injury can begin as early as middle school.
Most people who cut themselves have experienced problems in their backgrounds that may include low self-esteem, eating disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, impulsivity, neglectful parenting and other traumatic experiences. Many people who cut themselves also have a history of sexual or physical abuse.
Self-mutilation also is sometimes associated with other psychological maladies, such as posttraumatic stress symptoms, delinquency, depression and anxiety. Some teens may be strongly influenced by their peers, adds Dr. Mitch Prinstein, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
What Are the Warning Signs?
Dr. Prinstein points out that this type of behavior is done in a secretive fashion, either alone or with their peers. Parents should begin by looking for cuts on their child's arms, legs or chest.
"They usually do not have a good explanation for how this occurred and may become defensive or offended at the intrusive questioning," says Dr. Boesky. Other warning signs include the child not letting scabs heal by continuously picking at them, making derogatory comments about herself, becoming very secretive and withdrawing from her family and friends. Parents should also notice if there are sharp objects in the child's room that usually don't belong, such as razors, pieces of glass or bent paperclips.
Teens Talk About Why They Cut
"I started cutting as a coping skill," says Andrew Hajny, of Milwaukee, Wis., who started cutting himself five years ago when he was 14 years old. "I was building everything up and vented with razors." He is one of many teens that cut themselves as a way of releasing emotions.
"Cutting helped me to physically get rid of all my emotions without hurting anyone else," says Tifanie Pitman, of Milton, Fla., who was 13 when she started cutting herself.
"For most youth, self-injury is related to not being able to express their thoughts and emotions in language," explains Dr. Boesky. "Instead, these youth rely on actions to express themselves." She explains that the reasons children engage in such behavior include releasing tension, depression and anxiety. Other self-injurers use it as a means of expressing anger because they feel better taking those feelings out on themselves rather than on others. Many actually enjoy the pain that they experience during the act of cutting. Some youth use cutting as a way to connect with people they care about because they know that those people will offer comfort from their injuries.
Although other reasons should be considered first, there are youth who cut themselves because they are seeking attention or looking to control those around them. Regardless of what the original reason was that a youth started cutting, many begin to like the attention that they receive from their injuries, say experts.
How to Help
"Adolescents who engage in this behavior likely lack appropriate problem solving or emotion coping skills and should be referred for cognitive-behavioral treatment with a licensed psychologist," says Dr. Prinstein. Self-injury is usually a symptom of an underlying problem. Therefore, it's important to find out what the problem is that's motivating the behavior. This behavior should not be ignored or be considered a phase a child is going through.
Parents who suspect a child may be cutting should express their concerns to him or her and directly ask if they have been cutting. If there is a pattern of this behavior, then it is important that the youth receive a comprehensive mental health evaluation, which may lead to therapy, whereby a therapist will evaluate motives for cutting and will develop healthier coping skills.
An important thing to keep in mind about kids who cut is that they are typically not trying to kill themselves. They usually cut themselves in a way that will only leave them with a scar instead of any major injuries. Parents who recognize a child is cutting should see it is a sign that there is something wrong. "Try to understand why she is doing it versus just getting her to stop," says Dr. Boesky.