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Cutting? 5 Steps to Helping Your Teen

August 9, 2016

Maria was 14 years old. Her mother discovered scratches on her forearm that at first she attributed to her playing with the family cat. However, when asked, Maria become evasive and sought to hide the scratches. Her mother took her arm, pulled back her sleeve and saw a multitude of scratches in various states of healing.

Maria’s parents were shocked and scared by what was discovered. While Maria did tend to be secretive, they never thought she had any particular problems. This led to the parents coming for counseling. Maria refused to attend.

These scenarios are not uncommon.

Cutting or self mutilation is seen predominantly but not exclusively in young teenage girls. Typically the self-inflicted injuries are slight, definitely not life threatening and often restricted to the forearm or inner thigh where clothing can hide detection. Cutting is not necessarily associated with suicidal ideation or gestures, although a smaller percentage of teens that cut will experience depression and may be at risk for suicidal thought or gestures.

When asked, teens who cut usually explain that the practice (using a pin, exacto knife or small shard of glass to make superficial lacerations) provides relief from stress.

The issue becomes figuring out the stresses and offering other coping strategies for the affected person.

Common family stresses include high parental expectations for academic or athletic accomplishment. Praise and a sense of positive regard is felt by the teen to be tied to performance. There is a concern that parental love and caring and self-worth are dependent upon how well one does in the pursuit of the parental expectation. In other words, many of these teens feel like they cannot live up to their parent(s) expectations and they fret about it dearly. Cutting helps discharge the anxiety associated with not living up to expectations. If not tied to parental expectations, cutting can still be tied to concerns with meeting expectations such as grades for entry into college.

Treatment is best directed at both the parents and teen, which is not to say the teen necessarily has to attend treatment. If the parents attend on their own, their expectations can be assessed as well as their perception of the teen’s response to their expectations. The parents can be educated in terms of alternate strategies to facilitate reasonable and achievable expectations and performance as well as how to provide for the teens sense of self-worth independent of accomplishment.

If the teen attends treatment, focus should be on identifying stresses and triggers. In addition, focus should be on helping the teen talk about those issues; addressing concerns directly with those who may be felt as responsible by the teen; and then learning other strategies for managing distress.

If you have discovered that your teen is cutting, consider the following:

  1. Remain calm, albeit concerned.
  2. Tell your teen you love her/him.
  3. Ask about stresses with concern to your expectations. Be open to critical feedback. This can be a scary conversation for your teen.
  4. Let your teen know their worth is independent of their accomplishments. Your teen is worthy and lovable just for being.
  5. Learn to manage and set realistic and appropriate expectations if this is at issue.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Please check out my services and then call me if you need help with a child behavior or relationship issue.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships

One Comment
  1. Noted Kenneth Barnes Social Worker

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