Parenting tweens can be such a mixed bag. It’s important to cover serious topics such as bullying, cyberbullying, and broken hearts from drama with friends. But most of the time, issues around puberty and their newly budding attitudes can often be dealt with using humor. This is where I live – parenting with a bit of laughter makes everything better. But enough parents and friends have come to me exasperated by the issue of cutting, including many that I would have never suspected, that I feel compelled to talk about it here.
Cutting is when someone injures themselves by making scratches or cuts on their bodies with a sharp object, enough to draw blood. The most common places to cut are on the wrists, arms, legs, or stomach. It can be so difficult to understand why a child would do this, especially if it’s our own child. Cutting is most often a means of coping with painful emotions, difficult problems, or intense pressure, all which may feel to a young person that they will not go away or change.
The most prominent characteristic with cutters is a lack of coping skills. They desperately seek relief from bad feelings, and either have not learned a healthier way to cope with their problems, and/or are so impulsive that any coping skills they do have are overwhelmed by the urge to cut in order to express intensely strong feelings. In some cases, cutting can signal an underlying mental health issue such as depression, bipolar disorder, trauma, eating disorders, obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors, and drug or alcohol abuse.
The question I am asked most often regarding cutting is whether or not this means the child or adolescent is suicidal. I hate answering this question. It strikes fear in the heart of all of us to wonder if a child is contemplating suicide. And the truth is, I don’t want to falsely reassure anyone to the point where they dismiss what is going on, nor do I want to alarm an already panicked parent. It is a very complicated question, and one that I very seldom answer concisely because I believe this situation always warrants a thorough evaluation from an uninvolved mental health professional who can hear the whole story – not the bits and pieces that I hear from someone I know personally.
The conventional wisdom on this is that cutting is not an automatic or clear-cut indication of suicidal behavior. Unless the child or adolescent indicates that their cuts were made in an attempt to end their life, an emergency worker would generally not consider cutting a suicide attempt. It is important to note that risks of adolescent suicide include a history of past attempts, current thoughts of suicide, recent suicide attempts by friends or peers, alcohol or drug abuse, family problems, and gay or lesbian identification. This is, of course, just touching the surface of the topic of suicide because it could not possibly be covered in a paragraph. So even though cutting may not be predictive of suicide attempts, it is too complicated a situation to give a single answer. And remember, even though cutting may not indicate a risk for suicide, it is possible that the underlying causes of the cutting raise the risk considerably.
One of the most disturbing things I have seen is the attention that cutting gets on social media. There are groups on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter dedicated to cutters showing off their wounds. And because the viewers of these images are usually not adults, there is little encouragement to get help; rather you will find disgusting comments and even encouragement to do more. Left unchecked, this twisted world can make getting help for a cutter even more confusing and difficult.
Besides concerns about suicide, the other issue people express to me is that if they ask their tween about cutting, and their tween hadn’t known about it, they fear that they will have just put it into their head and almost ‘suggested’ it. I do understand this fear, I felt this way despite my years as a therapist when talking with my own daughter. But you must know, you will not be giving them any ideas.
So with your child (tween or teen):
-Ask if they know what cutting is
-Ask if they know anyone who does it (speak to a teacher or the school counselor if yes)
-Ask if they have seen it on social media (ask them to show you the site, report it, and ask them to not look at these sites and let you know when they pop up)
Above all else, talk about coping mechanisms! With my daughter we often talk about things to do in the short-term if something awful happens. I’ll give an example of something, perhaps her friends suddenly turn on her and embarrass her in front of everyone, what things could she do to feel better right then? Find another friend or group to sit with, take a brisk walk around the schoolyard (assuming it’s recess!), say a prayer, go find a teacher or school counselor to talk with, have a little stress ball to squeeze, etc.
And then we’ll talk about things to do long-term if things are difficult. If she is struggling with friendships, find an additional or replacement activity or hobby to explore, develop an exercise routine (exercise is HUGE in reducing stress and depression), learn to journal or use art as therapy, etc. You want your child to have an arsenal of skills to use in the moment and over time when difficulties arise. And talk about them often, not only will they change over time, she will get better at finding new skills and being able to think of them automatically.
If you suspect or discover that your child is cutting, do not deny that there is a problem, assume it’s a phase, or get angry. Do take this problem seriously, be supportive, and seek immediate help from a qualified professional. Cutting can absolutely escalate and become habit-forming. But many tweens and teens have been able to overcome cutting, and improve the quality of their pre-adolescent and adolescent years.
My book, Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends, centers on creating a strong relationship between parents and tween girls. Every issue that tweens and teens face can be mitigated by having a positive and involved relationship with your child. It won’t prevent them from being upset, hurt, making mistakes or facing negative influences. But it will create the safe place for them to land and heal, and their knowledge that the safe place exists makes the fall not seem so scary. So whether you find strength while reading my book or another, discover or re-discover the strength that I know you already have as a parent.