When Cutting Hits Home: How to Get Help for a Self-Injurious Child
You may have heard about a form of self-injury called cutting, wondering what it is, what it entails, why some teens do it, and how you can help if you find your child engaging in this behavior. Cutting as well as burning, hitting the self, and embedding objects under the skin are all form of self-injury, and they’re more common than you may realize. Studies show that, here in the United States, the lifetime prevalence of self-injuring behaviors ranges 12-37.2 percent in secondary school populations and 12-20 percent in young adult populations. There are at least 16 different kinds of self-injury documented today.
In spite of the prevalence, detecting and intervening in self-injurious behavior can be difficult. For instance, while cutting is the use of something sharp to cut the skin and can range from mild surface scratches to something fairly deep, the practice is often secretive. It also tends to involve body parts that are relatively easy to hide. For example, adolescents will often cut on their upper arms and thighs where the cuts are less noticeable.
It is hard to understand why someone would ever intentionally inflict such self-harm unless you have experienced the urge personally. Self-injury is often used as a way to cope with intense emotions such as anger, sadness and fear. It often begins as a way to feel more in control, then evolves into an activity that leaves the person feeling out of control.
As explained by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “Adolescents who have difficulty talking about their feelings may show their emotional tension, physical discomfort, pain and low self-esteem with self-injurious behaviors.”
Finding new ways to cope with challenging thoughts and uncomfortable feelings can help to suppress the urge to self-harm.
If you find your son or daughter self-harming and there’s no clear need to call 911, take a deep breath and try to pause before reacting. As frightening as it may be, remaining calm will help you better support your child at this time, as self-injury doesn’t necessarily mean your child is considering suicide (although it may be an indicator).
What else should you do? When you discover or sense your child may be practicing self-injury, here are some solid first steps you may want to take:
Seek outside professional assistance immediately, such as from a behavioral health specialist or mental health counselor to determine the “why” as well as the “what” of the self-injury at hand.
Avoid punishing, guilting or shaming your child into stopping the practice—this may lead the child to hide or find more covert ways to conceal the behavior from loved ones.
Acknowledge your own fears or concerns in a calm manner, being careful to not make your child’s behavior about you.
Validate your child’s feelings, but if he/she does not want to talk about the reason behind the cutting (or another type of self-harm), do not push. Again, turn to professional help.
Inform additional people or institutions that need to know, for example, the school, medical practitioners, and other adult professionals who are engaged personally with your child.
Cornell University has a wonderful website dedicated to helping parents understand this behavior, ways to best support your child, and information to help you cope as well.
One Community Health’s behavioral health and medical teams are here for you, too. If you are concerned about your child’s self-injurious practices, give us a call today: 541.386.6380. In an event of an emergency, call 911.
Behavioral Health Consultant, One Community Health