Cutting Is a Call for Help

By Danny Huerta, MSW, LCSW, LSSW
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Bless a hurting family this Thanksgiving
When tweens and teens are experiencing psychological distress, they may cut themselves to cope with the emotional pain.

Cutting is a Call for Help

When life gets hard, sometimes kids harm themselves via cutting in order to express their psycological distress.  Although it may be alarming to parents, a son or daughter’s cuttting is a call for help and a way to cope with emotional pain. 

The Issue

Cutting usually involves making cuts on various parts of the body using razors, knives or shards of glass. (Other forms of self-harm include hitting one’s head against a wall, rubbing skin with erasers or burning one’s skin.) The relief obtained by harming oneself is a short-term attempt to cope with emotional pain. However, the feelings of relief can become addictive.

Many adults can’t understand why teens would harm themselves. However, cutting is a call for help to deal with unbearable hurt, anger and feelings of isolation and self-hatred. Self-injury gives some teens a temporary feeling of being in control when their world seems out of control. The pain is a reminder that they are still alive and provides a break from the emotional hurt. In addition, the physical wounds show healing whereas emotional pain lingers. 

People engaged in self-injury are typically not trying to commit suicide, but the physical harm that results can be serious. Wounds may become infected, deep cuts can require stitches, and self-inflicted blows to the head may cause concussions.

Cutting isn’t a fringe phenomenon, unfortunately. About 2 million cases of cutting are reported each year, with many more cases unreported. Ask most high school students (and even many middle school kids) and they will tell you they know someone who is cutting to cope with emotional pain. In fact, a subculture of cutting flourishes on the Internet, with websites dedicated to providing guidance on how to cut “safely” or not get caught.

Being Proactive

Although cutting is a call for help for relief from psychological distress, it is also an indicator of communication problems. Unable to verbalize and appropriately deal with their feelings, cutters adopt unhealthy means to cope with emotional pain and then have to deal with feelings of shame from their actions. You can reduce the likelihood your child will engage in cutting by:

  • Communicating and connectingLet your teen know you care about what she’s going through, and that you are available to talk about what she’s feeling. Encourage her to verbalize her emotions. Ask: What do certain emotions feel like in her body? What does she do when she feels a certain emotion? Try to find an activity that just you and your teen can share to give you a special bond. Cooking, jogging, working in the garage, fishing—look for something fun you could do together.
  • Stress watching – Keep an eye on your child’s stress. What puts pressure on your child? Is her stress at a manageable level? What activities can you encourage her to give up in order to reduce stress? Is she sleeping enough or too much (each child needs different amounts of sleep)? How is her social world?
  • Providing Healthy OptionsGive your teen healthy ways to cope with emotional pain. In certain seasons of life, pressure is unavoidable. Help your child find ways to deal with stress, such as exercise or an enjoyable hobby. Expressive artwork, collage-making and journaling are great ideas for many teens. Talk together about activities they pursue or the things they create. Discuss what “fills their tank” or energizes them.

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Helping Your Child

When cutting is a call for help, you may see:

  • Scars on arm or legs (girls often cut on the stomach and breasts as well)
  • Excusing wounds as a result of “accidents”
  • Keeping sharp objects (razors, utility knives) on hand
  • Towels, washcloths and sheets are often bloodstained
  • Wearing long sleeves or long pants, even when the weather is hot
  • Difficulties with relationships or being isolated for long periods of time
  • Making statements about self-hatred or worthlessness

If you notice these signs in your child, start a conversation and remain calm—which is easier said than done. You could say something like, “I’ve noticed some scars on your arms. I love you, and I want to understand what you’re going through. Can you help me understand?” You could also ask questions, such as: “I’ve been hearing about cutting lately, and I was wondering if you know anyone who hurts themselves,” or “Have any of your friends at school been talking about cutting?”

Don’t downplay the issue as “a phase” or a simple “cry for help.” While those who cut typically do not intend suicide, research suggests that 70 percent of kids who engage in self-harm will make at least one suicide attempt.

Don’t demand that your child stop under threat of punishment or rejection, as this may just make the problem worse. Let your child know that you genuinely care and that she doesn’t have to cope with emotional pain by cutting. Do what you can to create an environment that encourages discussion.

A Helpful Exercise

Try to hold a glass of water with your arm extended for as long as you can. Does it get heavier the longer you hold it? Your muscles get tired and the glass feels heavier, even though the weight never changes. Emotional pain can feel the same way.

You can use this illustration to help your child understand the concept of letting things go. Identify trustworthy people in her life who can help her learn to release emotional pain in healthy ways. If your child doesn’t struggle with cutting, he can use this illustration to help a friend who does. He can show that emotional pain can become heavier over time.  Furthermore, he can demonstrate the importance of finding healthy ways to cope with emotional pain.

This is a serious problem, and you should not try to address it alone. Seek help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience in this area. Some forms of counseling attempt to equip the teen with coping skills and articulate her feelings. She may also learn to tolerate stress more effectively. This may be the focus of therapy even before the actual cutting is addressed. The idea is that if you stop the cutting but your teen can’t cope with the emotional pain in a healthy way, self-harm is likely to recur.  

Reaching Out

You can help your child reach out to a teen who is cutting by equipping her with the right words to say. Your teen can communicate to her friend that she is not alone, that someone cares about her. She can also assure her friend that your teen is a safe person to talk to. Your child should also encourage someone who’s cutting to talk to a parent, school counselor or another trusted adult. Her friend may ask her to keep the cutting a secret, but some secrets keep others in danger. Let your teen know that to be a good friend, she needs to tell someone who can help.

Talk About It

Be a noticer

  • Why do you think people injure themselves through cutting? What do they want to achieve through their actions? Do you agree that cutting is a call for help?
  • What are people who cut trying to communicate? Have you wanted to hurt yourself intentionally?
  • What are some healthy and unhealthy ways we handle stress in our home?

Be a builder

  • How can you encourage someone who is superstressed or in a lot of emotional pain?
  • Do you know someone who is cutting or injuring themselves?
  • Why is it so hard to explain emotional pain? How can you help others talk about their emotions?

 Becoming a connector

  • Why is it best NOT to keep cutting to cope with emotional pain?
  • How does your willingness to listen help someone that is in severe emotional pain? How can a counselor help?

Copyright © 2019 by Focus on the Family

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About the Author

Danny Huerta Media Profile
Danny Huerta, MSW, LCSW, LSSW

As vice president of the Parenting and Youth department, Danny oversees Focus’ initiatives that equip parents to disciple and mentor the next generation, so that they can thrive in Christ.