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Self Mutilation

How to cope with your teen’s habit of self mutilation (SI)

Discovering that your teen is a cutter can be very frightening and overwhelming to say the least. You may find yourself in a state of shock, blaming yourself and your capabilities as a parent wondering how you are going to cope with your own feelings, as well as helping your teen find healthier ways to deal with his or her inner turmoil. Unfortunately there haven’t been very many studies done on teen cutting and because of this statistics are not readily available. It has been estimated though that 1% of the US population (or 2-3 million) struggle with self damaging behavior, self mutilation or self injury (SI) and 1 out of 200 girls (13-19 yrs of age) or one-half of one percent regularly cut themselves.

What is self mutilation and why do people cut?

Self mutilation or self injury (SI) is when someone physically harms him/ herself to the point of drawing blood, permanently scaring their skin to deal with intolerable psychological/ emotional pain. Self mutilation or self injury (SI) is a secretive practice or behavior accompanied by extreme feelings of shame, embarrassment and self loathing. Other self injurious behaviors include burning oneself with cigarettes or with hot elements, taking an overdose, eating disorders, drug or alcohol abuse, becoming involved in violent or abusive relationships, or any other dangerous or self destructive behavior

Typically teens will self mutilate/ self injure where they can conceal their injuries and scars with an article of clothing (long sleeves) to hide their self destructive behavior from those around them. Teens will try to offer another explanation for their injuries so that they can continue to hide their self injurious behavior.

The act of cutting releases endorphins which give the cutter a temporary high or rush which helps the teen feel alive. This is a coping mechanism that some teens use to take away the emotional pain they are experiencing as physically harming yourself produces a calming effect. Cutting produces a release of intense and intolerable psychological/ emotional pain and a way to express anger and other negative emotions that the teen is struggling with. What your teen is really looking for is a distraction from the intolerable psychological or emotional pain that he or she is feeling inside.

Cutting/ other self injurious behavior gives the teen an illusion of control since their emotions/ inner turmoil is so out of control. Usually the person is not trying to kill, permanently injure or scar themselves, though some teens may end up struggling with suicidal ideation. Often times cutting begins on impulse and if left untreated can become compulsive, chronic, dangerous, addictive and sometimes even life threatening. The dangers associated with cutting range from mild to severe such as infections from using dirty objects (such as broken glass, razor blades, or any sharp object used to self harm), cutting becomes repetitive which can become an addiction, there is a danger of cutting too deep resulting in loosing too much blood, and in some cases stitches are needed. Your teen may need to be hospitalized and accidental death can occur.

A lot of teens who cut struggle with low self esteem or self worth, they feel isolated from friends and family (unable to express their emotions/ issues), and struggle with extreme self loathing, anger, and other negative emotions or even quite possibly trying to deal with a traumatic experience that they haven’t shared with you (such as abuse, date rape, or bullying at school). Many teens who cut report that they feel a need to punish themselves (struggling with self hate) along with feeling dead inside and only when they see the blood appear on their skin do they realize that they are indeed still alive. This need to visually see their blood to know that they are alive is a key and dangerous element with those that cut.

Cutting is not a healthy way to cope with emotional pain as it doesn’t take it away, it simply masks it. Even though initially the cutter will experience temporary relief ( or calming effect), this does not last, the cutting has to be repeated (the more a person cuts, the more they need to do it) and sometimes the cutter will take greater risks cutting much deeper, or cutting themselves more frequently. Instead of making a single cut, they cut several times to produce the same effect that the initial cut produced. It’s important to remember that cutting is a sign of a much deeper issue that your teen is struggling with. If your teens’ cutting has become compulsive or chronic, professional help is needed immediately. While your love, support and understanding can go a long way in helping your teen deal with his or her emotional issues, don’t make the mistake of believing that you can deal with this issue on your own as a parent. It’s possible that your teen is struggling with other psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), Bi-polar disorder and even suicidal ideation.

Seeking professional help for your teen as well as yourself is highly recommended as self mutilation affects the entire family. This will enable you to also receive support providing you with helpful tools so that you can better assist your teen and help him or her figure out what is going on internally causing the self injurious behavior. Treatment usually includes both medication and therapy (individual/ family) over an extended period of time. It is not uncommon for your teen to self injure again after successfully stopping the self injurious behavior for a lengthy period of time. Set backs are common and to be expected. The important thing to focus on is that the self injurious behavior becomes less and less over time and eventually disappears as your teen develops healthier coping skills.

Signs that your teen may be a cutter:

1.You notice cuts or an increase in cuts/ scars on your teens arms, legs, stomach or other areas that can be concealed with clothing or big jewelry

2.Your teen is secretive, irritable and is compulsive

3. Your teen wears long sleeves even in hot weather

4. Your teen struggles with self hate or self loathing

5. Your teen has isolated from social circles, family and activities that use to bring them joy

6. Your teen appears to be depressed

How can you help?

1.Seek professional help immediately

2.Encourage your teen to open up to you emotionally and provide a safe atmosphere in which your teen will be able to do this by truly listening to your teen, offering support, love, reassurance and understanding

3. Do not deny what is happening with your teen. Cutting is not attention seeking behavior or something your teen will grow out of, it is serious and should not be taken lightly

4.Try to get to the root cause of your teens distress

5.Never express anger towards your teen for the self injurious behavior. This will further alienate your teen from you and can cause his or her depression to deepen.

6.Help your teen to come up with healthier coping skills

If you are a teen who is struggling with self mutilation or self injury (SI):

1.Reach out for support and ask for help. Tell someone that you trust what you are struggling with. It can be hard to overcome the shame accompanied with cutting but its important to try and overcome the shame so that you don’t have to go through this alone.

2.Stay strong and don’t give up. Remember that with support and treatment you will learn healthier coping skills which will help you to stop cutting. It won’t be easy but it’s definitely possible. You can beat this.

3.Learn what your triggers are. Your triggers can be difficult to identify so it will really be helpful to ask your counselor to help you with this.

4. Most of all be patient with yourself and practice self love or self care (Listen to soothing music, take a long bubble bath, paint your toes, watch a good movie, read a self help book on cutting, and reach out for support when you need it. Basically do things that self sooth, and treat yourself in loving and kind ways. You are worth it.

Most of all remember that you are not alone and you do not have to suffer alone.

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