Cutting isn't new, but this form of self-injury has been out in the open more in recent years, portrayed in movies and on TV,even talked about by celebrities who have admitted to cutting themselves at some point.
Cutting is a serious issue that affects many teens. Even if you haven't heard about cutting, chances are good that your teen has and might even know someone who does it. Like other risky behaviors, cutting can be dangerous and habit-forming. In most cases, it is also a sign of deeper emotional distress. In some cases, peers can influence teens to experiment with cutting.
The topic of cutting can be troubling for parents. It can be hard to understand why a teen would deliberately self-injure, and worrisome to think your teen or one of your teen's friends could be at risk.
But parents who are aware of this important issue and understand the emotional pain it can signal are in a position to help.
What Is Cutting?
Someone who cuts uses a sharp object to make marks, cuts, or scratches on the body on purpose, enough to break the skin and cause bleeding. People typically cut themselves on their wrists, forearms, thighs, or belly.
Most people who self-injure are girls, but guys do it too. It usually starts during the teen years and can continue into adulthood. In some cases, there's a family history of cutting.
A sense of shame and secrecy often goes along with cutting. Most teens who cut hide the marks and if they're noticed, make up excuses about them. Some teens don't try to hide cuts and might even call attention to them.
Cutting often begins as an impulse. But many teens discover that once they start to cut, they do it more and more, and can have trouble stopping. Many teens who self-injure report that cutting provides a sense of relief from deep painful emotions. Because of this, cutting is a behavior that tends to reinforce itself.
Cutting can become a teen's habitual way to respond to pressures and unbearable feelings.
Most of the time, cutting is not a suicide attempt. But sadly, people often underestimate the potential to get seriously sick or hurt through bleeding or infections that go along with cutting.
Why Do Teens Cut?
Teens cut for many different reasons:
Powerful overwhelming emotions. Most teens who cut are struggling with powerful emotions. To them, cutting might seem like the only way to express or interrupt feelings that seem too intense to endure. Emotional pain over rejection, lost or broken relationships, or deep grief can be overwhelming for some teens.And many times they're dealing with emotional pain or difficult situations that no one knows about.
Self-inflicted physical pain is specific and visible. For some, the physical pain of cutting can seem preferable to emotional pain. Emotional pain can feel vague and hard to pinpoint, talk about, or soothe.
When they cut, teens say there is a sense of control and relief to see and know where the specific pain is coming from and a sense of soothing when it stops. Cutting can symbolize inner pain that might not have been verbalized, confided, acknowledged, or healed. And because it's self-inflicted, it is pain the teen controls.
Feeling "addicted." Cutting can be habit forming. Though it only provides temporary relief from emotional distress, the more a person cuts, the more he or she feels the need to do it. As with other compulsive behaviors, the brain starts to connect a momentary sense of relief from bad feelings with the act of cutting.
Whenever the tension builds, the brain craves that relief and drives the teen to seek relief again by cutting. So cutting can become a habit someone feels powerless to stop. The urge to cut to get relief can seem too hard to resist when emotional pressure is high.
Peer pressure. Some teens are influenced to start cutting by another person who does it.
Any of these factors may help to explain why a particular teen cuts. But each teen also has unique feelings and experiences that play a role. Some who cut might not be able to explain why they do it.
Regardless of the factors that may lead a teen to self-injure, cutting isn't a healthy way to deal with even the most extreme emotions or pressures.
Bringing a Halt to Cutting
Whether or not anyone else knows or has tried to help, some teens cut for a long time before they try to stop. For teens whose cutting is part of another mental health condition, professional help is usually necessary.
Some teens find a way to stop cutting on their own. This might happen if a teen finds a powerful reason to stop (such as realizing how much it hurts a friend), receives needed support, or finds ways to resist the powerful urge to cut. To stop cutting, a person also needs to find new ways to deal with problem situations and regulate emotions that feel overwhelming.
It can be difficult to stop cutting and a teen might not succeed at first. Some people stop for a while and then start cutting again. It takes determination, courage, strength as well as support from others who understand and care to break this powerful habit.