What Parents Need To Know About Teens 'Cutting'

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Trigger warning: self harm

My daughter is fifteen and has seemed really happy lately. High school has taken its toll on her, but I was beginning to see the light since she started remote learning last year. She went from being really quiet and moody to coming alive again.

However, a week ago her dad noticed some cuts on her arm. When he confronted her, she told him they were cat scratches but he knew there was no way their cat was doing that to her.

We both sat down and talked with her, and she admitted it — she’d been cutting herself for a few weeks.

As her mother, this was horrifying. I did my best to handle it the right way, but I’m sure I really screwed up. She told me it makes her feel better. She also said she feels so bad about herself lately. I immediately started to blame myself — after all, she has been spending hours in her room since the pandemic and has said many times she’s incredibly bored and lonely.

I asked her older brother about this and he told me it’s definitely a “thing” teens are doing. He said it’s just as common as drinking and smoking pot. Lots of teenagers cut themselves, then talk about it and show each other.

I realized instead of trying to understand why she would do this, I needed to take action and try to help her get through this without shame or giving her consequences.

I came across an article in Kids Health which explained, “People who cut may not have developed ways to cope. Or their coping skills may be overpowered by emotions that are too intense. When emotions don’t get expressed in a healthy way, tension can build up — sometimes to a point where it seems almost unbearable. Cutting may be an attempt to relieve that extreme tension. For some, it seems like a way of feeling in control.”

I had to start wrapping my mind in this in some way, and for me, this was a good place to start.

Scary Mommy talked with Nani Moskal, LCSW, QMHP-C, a licensed clinical social worker and adolescent counselor at FCCR in Richmond, Virginia via email, who told us the most important thing you can do for a teen who is cutting is to get them some support — without judging them. Simply ask them what you can do to help, and then really listen to what they say.

Other great tips are encouraging them to seek professional help, focus on their strength, and make sure you get some professional help for yourself and learn as much as you can about self-harm.

Moskal says it’s so important to remember that self-harm isn’t solely attention-seeking behavior. It wouldn’t be in the best interest of your child who is cutting if you chalked it up to the fact they wanted more attention. Whether you give them more attention or not, it won’t solve the underlying issue as to why they are cutting.

First, have a gentle talk with your teen and and let them know you are there to help them. “Hopefully your teenager can begin to open up about what is going on and how they are feeling. This can then lead to a discussion about other activities to either distract or cope with stress when urges to self-harm return,” says Moskal.

It’s also important to have a plan in place for when your teen feels like cutting again. They will need help and suggestions from you. According to Moskal, some good ideas are: “Going on a walk, taking a bubble bath, listening to music, watching a movie, getting something to eat, or taking a nap.”

For more specific urges related to self-harm, Moskal says holding an ice cube or drawing gently with a marker on one’s arm can provide safe alternatives to cutting.

Help your teen understand that the goal with therapy is to help them work through the underlying reasons as to why they want to cut. My daughter is dead-set against therapy and feels it won’t help, but I know her thoughts are based on the fact she doesn’t understand she’s doing it other than to feel better.

“The goal for therapy for adolescents and young adults struggling with self-harm is to explore and understand the motives, discover healthier coping skills, and treat any underlying mental health diagnoses that are likely related,” Moskal says.

I can give my daughter lots of love and attention, but unfortunately I am not trained to help her find the reasons as to why she’s cutting herself. I might think I know how and think I can help, but frankly, I need help to ensure I’m going about it in the right way.

If you have a teens who is cutting here are some other resources so you can both get the support and help you need to see them through this really gut-wrenching time.

Self-Harm Crisis Text Line

Helping Teens Who Cut (for Parents)

And this article has helped me tremendously. After reading it, I printed off a list of things my daughter could do instead of cutting for her. Then, we went through her room together and took out all the sharp things from her room and bathroom.

I had no idea cutting was a trend among teenagers. Now that I know, I felt it was my job to share it with other parents of teens and let you know all the many resources that are out there so your child – and you — can get through this.

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