Teens and Cutting: Why It Happens and What Parents Can Do

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“The number one self-reported reason for self-harm is dealing with negative emotions, such as anxiety or anger,” explains Butler.

The signs are unmistakable: Tiny scars on a teenager’s arms or legs that indicate they’re a cutter—someone who intentionally cuts themselves as a coping mechanism.

Researchers estimate that roughly 17 percent of adolescents in this country engage in self-injury behaviors such as cutting—using sharp objects like razor blades and tweezers, or sometimes even just their fingernails to make themselves bleed. And the problem appears to be on the rise. A 2015 study in the journal Pediatrics revealed that emergency department visits for self-inflicted injuries in adolescents increased between 2009 and 2012.

To learn more about why teens cut themselves and how parents can help, we reached out to Melissa Butler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Indiana University Health specializing in treating children and adolescents.

“The number one self-reported reason for self-harm is dealing with negative emotions, such as anxiety or anger,” explains Butler. She adds that some teens will say that they do it because they feel numb, and cutting makes them feel something. Some people liken it to a bit of a high, says Butler, which is probably because pain-fighting endorphins are released in response to the cut.

The behavior is more common in girls than in boys, says Butler, and these days, it’s affecting tweens as well as teens. “In the past, it was much more of an older adolescent behavior, but the behavior has crept downward and we are now seeing more of it in the middle school years,” says Butler.

Cutting is also less secretive today. “It used to be that teens would be careful to cut above their gym short line so no one could see the scars,” says Butler. But, she says, in recent years, the behavior has become more socially acceptable. “In certain social cliques it’s not only acceptable to self-harm, it’s become part of a group’s identity, almost like a badge of honor,” she says.

Butler says that’s partly because there have been TV movies about cutting, and famous people—such as singer Demi Lovato—acknowledging that they have engaged in cutting.

The Internet has also played a part. “There are places where people go to post pictures of their cutting, and there are also websites that teach you how to do first aid so that you don’t have to seek treatment or have your behavior come to the attention of parents,” says Butler.

Psychotherapy is the main treatment for cutting. One popular form of therapy is called dialectical behavior therapy, which is an evidence-based treatment that teaches people how to better deal with negative emotions, says Butler. “We focus on helping teens work on regulating their emotions, better tolerating stress, improving their interpersonal skills and practicing mindfulness,” says Butler.

Treatment for cutting can be challenging, she adds, because “people report feeling better almost immediately after cutting, but healthy coping skills often take time and practice, and so the results aren’t immediate.”

If you know or suspect that your child is cutting, Butler offers these tips:

Do reach out for help right away.

A good first step is to talk to your child’s pediatrician or school counselor, who can refer you to a qualified mental health professional such as a psychologist or social worker. “You need to find out as soon as possible if your child is also having suicidal thoughts, because these two things can go hand in hand,” says Butler.

Don’t be dismissive.

Butler says many parents and even some clinicians may downplay the behavior and say the teen is just trying to get attention. “But that’s very invalidating for a child to hear, and it’s not going to open up the lines of communication,” she says.

Don’t be punitive.

“Sometimes parents react very angrily because they don’t understand why their child is cutting,” says Butler. But punishing your child will only make the situation worse. Try to approach the problem calmly and realize that your child isn’t cutting in order to cause trouble.

-- By Patricia Scanlon

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