Coping with Cutting Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel

First, I want to thank all of you for reading my blog posts regularly and for sharing them with people you know.  I hope you’re finding them helpful.

This article ran almost two years ago.  Although cutting isn’t something I’m seeing in my practice right now, I’m anticipating that I’ll see it as the pressures of school start to mount.  This article looks a bit at why kids cut and, much more importantly, what parents can do to help their kids.

You and your teen
Coping with cutting
By STEVE DEBENEDETTI-EMANUEL
Land Park News Family Columnist
steve@rivercitycounseling.com

Not long ago, “Dave,” a 15-year-old boy, came into my office for his regularly scheduled appointment.  Almost immediately, I noticed that he had about a two inch, vertical cut on his left wrist, and I asked him about it.  At first he told me that he’d brushed up against something and accidentally scratched himself, but when I challenged his story he eventually told me that he’d cut himself with a knife.

When I asked what was happening in his life, he told me that the academic pressure from both his teachers and parents was really getting to him.  He felt horrible and hadn’t known where to turn.  Without giving it much thought, he’d cut himself, and the bad feelings went away for a little while.  But before long, the feelings returned.

When I asked Dave if his parents noticed his cut, he told me that he wasn’t sure because they hadn’t said anything.  As the cut was hard to miss, this left me feeling more concerned.  After talking it through, Dave decided that it was be a good idea to have his parents join him for his next appointment.

At the family meeting, I helped Dave talk about his feelings and what led him to cut.  I also asked his parents if they’d noticed the cut.  They admitted that they had and wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do or say, so they kept silent.  This admission helped open up the conversation, and Dave got the support he needed.  He hasn’t cut since.

Talking about it

I know there are times in which it’s tempting not to talk about difficult issues like cutting with our teens.  Rather than having what could be a heated, emotional conversation, parents choose to stay silent.  That way they don’t have to deal with difficult feelings that might surface because their teen’s struggles.  It’s easier to hope the problem goes away on its own.  And sometimes it does.

Unfortunately, cutting is often a sign of something more serious and doesn’t just stop on its own.  Sometimes, talking about what hurts deeply is too overwhelming, so teens use cutting as a way of getting out these feelings and showing others just how much pain they’re in.  Other times, teens feel numb on the inside, so they cut as a way to feel something on the outside, even if it’s pain.

Either way, teens are communicating that something isn’t right and they want someone to pay attention.  They’re shouting and waving their arms in hopes that you’ll notice and do something before the avalanche hits and problems get worse.  This doesn’t mean that you’ll have any easy conversation.  Your teen is probably going to get defensive and deny that there’s a big problem.  At the same time, he or she is also going to be relieved because you’ve noticed that things aren’t OK and you want to help.

It’s important that you let your teen know that he or she isn’t in trouble. Tell them that you’re worried, not angry.  Tell them that you want to hear how they’re feeling, and try to be open to what they say.  Do your best to remain calm throughout the conversation.  If you get defensive and angry and threaten to do things like taking their door off its hinges and grounding them indefinitely, you’ll probably leave your teen feeling that he or she never should have said anything.  Help your teen seek the support of trusted adults, including a counselor, when necessary.

In the end, it’s scary for parents to learn that their teens are injuring themselves by cutting.  Fortunately, I’ve found that if parents provide necessary support when they notice that their teen has started cutting, rather than ignoring it or getting angry, teens often are able to cope with their strong feelings without hurting themselves further.

2 Responses to Coping with Cutting Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel
  1. Ken Siegmann
    October 11, 2011 | 4:24 am

    Here’s a blog post I wrote on this issue a couple of years ago:
    http://compassion.typepad.com/insight_blog/2008/04/cutting-to-the.html

    A local weekly newspaper recently ran an article on teenage cutting. I was surprised and pleased, since this is a near-epidemic problem among teens and it’s something nobody talks about. The article interviewed a couple of ministers and a local Rabbi, who offered good perspectives. But I felt compelled to write a letter to the editor in response. I thought I’d share it with you:

    To the Editor:

    I want to commend the Sacramento News & Review for its coverage of cutting and self-harm among teenagers.

    As a psychotherapist working with teens for the last 11 years, I believe this problem is near epidemic. When I worked as a child and adolescent crisis intervention counselor, a large number of teens I saw had engaged in cutting or other forms of self harm. Many school administrators and counselors reported to me that the problem was rampant.

    I appreciate Rabbi Alfi’s perspective and her willingness to speak out on the issue. Yet I believe the phenomenon of cutting and self-mutilation goes far deeper than “a very private way of rebelling.”

    Quite often, teens who engage in cutting are in severe emotional pain. All too often, that pain is rooted in physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or some other trauma.

    Over the years, I have heard many teens say they cut themselves because the physical pain was easier to take than the emotional pain. Some teens cut so they can feel something, anything, after physical, sexual, or emotional abuse has left them numb. And, as Rabbi Alfi said, some teens cut or self-mutilate because it gives them a sense of control in a world that seems frighteningly out of control.

    As noted in the article, cutting and self-harm can also become compulsive behaviors. Many teens have told me how difficult it is to stop. And many have reported that once they have stopped, they are afraid to start again, despite the on-going urge, because they fear they may not be able to stop again. It’s also worth noting that while cutting is most common among adolescent girls, teen boys also cut or self-mutilate for the same reasons.

    I agree, as the article stated, that spiritual interventions can be an important part of healing. But in most cases, teens who cut or self-mutilate need psychological counseling, and often family intervention, so they can find healthier ways to manage, express and heal their emotional pain, and to gain a real sense of control and mastery over their lives.

    The phenomenon of teen cutting is not new. But it is only in the last few years that it has been getting the attention that it deserves.

    Finally, cutting and self-mutilation are not only teen behaviors. Over the years I have worked with many adult survivors of severe childhood trauma – particularly sexual abuse. It is an unfortunate truth that cutting and self-mutilation are not unusual behaviors among this population. Many adult survivors of child abuse practice self-harm for many of the same reasons that teens do.

    They key, for both teens and adults, is to heal the pain and trauma that birthed these behaviors. I believe very strongly that with the right intervention, counseling and guidance, these wounds can be healed.

    Ken Siegmann
    Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
    Citrus Heights, CA
    ken@insight-counseling.org
    http://www.insight-counseling.org
    (916) 367-2105

    • Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel
      October 11, 2011 | 4:16 pm

      Ken, thanks for sharing your article. I really like how well you got into the topic of why teens cut. My hope is that this will help parents understand further how serious cutting is and how important it is to get help for their kids.

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