Cutting In Teens: Why Do Teens Cut?

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My Child Is Cutting Themselves: What Can I Do To Help?

BY DR SARAH HUGHES

There’s a self-harm epidemic taking over our schools. As many as 1 in 12 teens are hurting themselves. They’re cutting their bodies and intentionally overdosing on prescription and non-prescription medications. How did we get here?

1 in 12 teens are cutting to cope...how did we get here?

1 in 12 teens are cutting to cope…how did we get here?

Is it the pressure teen’s face to perform academically? It is all the extracurriculars they’re expected to juggle and excel in? Is it social media? The pressure to be thin? The pressure to be popular?

Being a teen today is certainly no walk in the park – it’s stressful and overwhelming. But why self-harm?

Why have cutting and deliberate overdoses become a popular method of coping?

Most teens say that self-harm helps them to cope with their distress. The physical pain caused by cutting or the unconscious state following an overdose offers a temporary relief from high anxiety and other overwhelming emotions. Other teens might hurt themselves:

• Because they believe they’re inherently bad or worthless and deserve to be punished
• To communicate their distress to others so that others respond with empathy
• To influence the behaviour of others (e.g. “If you break up with me I’ll hurt myself”)

While most teens cut to deal with overwhelming emotions, some teens hurt themselves to fit in with their peers or because they believe cutting makes them more cool and interesting. It’s this view of self-harm as ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ that has no doubt contributed to the cutting epidemic spreading through schools.

If you suspect your child could be hurting themselves, take action. It’s easy to take cutting less seriously if the cuts are superficial scratches or if you think your teen is only cutting for attention, but be aware that dismissing your teens self-harm might trigger them to experiment with more serious self-harm in an attempt to get you to take them more seriously.

Tip #1: Watch for Warning Signs

Teens aren’t always forthcoming in reporting their self-harm so it’s important to watch closely for warning signs like:

• Unexplained cuts, burn marks, or scars
• Blood stains on bed sheets or clothes
• Blood-stained tissues or empty pill packets
• Missing sharp objects (e.g. knives, scissors, safety pins, razors)
• Deliberate attempts to cover certain body parts
• Secretive or elusive behaviour
• Disappearing for long periods of time when distressed

Tip #2: Be Aware of Risk Factors

Not all teens will turn to self-harm to cope – even if they tick all the risk factors boxes – but knowing what makes a teen vulnerable to self-harm will help you to know when to keep an eye out for warning signs:

• Having friends who self-harm
• Stress at school
• Changes to family dynamics
• Changes to friends or social status
• Negative body image
• Poor coping skills
• Difficulty expressing/sharing feelings
• Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem

Tip #3: Know the Difference Between Self-Harm and Suicide

It’s important for you to know that even though your child is self-harming they don’t necessarily have any intent or desire to end their life. In fact some adolescents report that self-harm helps to protect them against suicide because it helps them cope with their distress. This said, self-harm is often an impulsive reaction to extreme distress and adolescents can cause themselves serious harm without meaning to so it’s still important to seek help.

Tip #4: Put a Safety Plan in Place

If you discover that your child is self-harming let them know that you’re worried about their safety and need to put some strategies in place to keep them safe until you feel confident they can ensure their own safety. It’s important to emphasise that these measures are not a punishment.

Depending on your child’s level of risk, safety strategies might include: checking on your child at regular intervals or your child needing to remain in rooms of the house where others are present, asking your child to hand in any self-harming instruments (e.g. cutting instruments, medications) or searching your child’s room for self-harming instruments, locking up household medications, or sleeping in your child’s room.

Tip #5: Seek Professional Help

If your child is self-harming seek help from a clinical psychologist. A clinical psychologist can help to identify the function of your child’s self-harm so that your child can learn more adaptive coping strategies and skills for tolerating intense distress without self-harm. A clinical psychologist can also provide you with strategies for addressing the underlying causes of your child’s self-harm and help you to know how best to respond to self-harm if it occurs at home.

Your GP will be able to provide you with information about clinical psychologists in your area. Make sure that the clinical psychologist you see has experience working with teens and self-harm.

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Think Clinical Psychologists. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and adults, and specialises in anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and challenging behaviour.


 

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