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Self-Mutilation: Why Is My Child Cutting Himself and How Can I Help Him Manage This Condition?

If your child deliberately injures himself/herself by cutting his/her body with a sharp object (box cutter, knife, etc.), he/she is participating in self-mutilation. When he/she cuts deep enough to bleed he/she is suffering from a type of self-mutilation called “cutting.” Cutting behaviors typically begin during the teenage years, but can arise during early childhood or late adolescence.

In some cases, cutting behaviors persist into early adulthood. If your child is self-mutilating, he/she may cut himself/herself on the arms, wrists, legs and/or lower abdomen. Some children may take it a step further and burn themselves with cigarettes, cigarette lighters and/or matches. When the cuts and/or burns heal, they often leave “battle scars” and/or marks. You may not notice your child’s cuts at first because he/she will more than likely hide the scars and/or marks from you.

Why Do Adolescents Self-Mutilate?

The reason why adolescents self-mutilate varies depending on the child. In some cases, it may be hard to understand why your child is cutting himself/herself. Your child may start cutting as a way to cope with conflicting emotions, peer pressure, a romantic break-up, frustration and/or hormones. He/she may cut as a way to release pressure and distract himself/herself from the emotional pain. Moreover, your adolescent may be experiencing a situation that he/she does not know how to resolve. He/she may be so overwhelmed that the only way he/she can get relief from the situation is to cut.

It is important to understand, that your adolescent may not know any other way to get relief from his/her emotional pain and/or conflicting feelings. Cutting may be your child’s way of coping with feelings of sorrow, sadness, rage, abandonment, rejection, hopelessness, emptiness and/or loneliness. Your child’s urge to self-mutilate may be triggered by the inability to express how he/she really feels (scared, angry, shame, hurt, etc.) for fear of criticism, rejection and/or ridicule.

In addition, your child may cut because he/she does not feel that he/she fits in with peers, with your family or with others in the world. He/she may feel like no one cares or understands him/her or he/she may cut as a way to deal with the death of a loved one, pet or friend. In your child’s mind cutting is the only way he/she can express himself/herself and gain relief from what distresses him/her.

What Triggers Cutting?

Cutting typically starts with an impulse. It is important to note that your child does not think about cutting himself/herself in advance, rather something happens to trigger that reaction. If your child has a psychological disorder or mental illness, emotional stress, pressure and/or anguish can trigger and/or worsen cutting behaviors.

Moreover, cutting is often linked to clinical depression, manic depression, eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia and binging), obsessive compulsive disorder, impulsivity, behavioral problems and anxiety disorders. Drug and alcohol abuse and/or addictions may also cause adolescents to cut themselves.

Furthermore, your adolescent may begin cutting as a way to deal with a traumatic experience like child abuse, child neglect, abandonment, divorce, a new baby, domestic violence, and/or a natural disaster. Your child may view cutting as a way to “feel” again. In your adolescent’s mind, the pain from the cutting takes away the emotional pain and physical numbness.

How Can I Get My Child To Stop Cutting?

Tell Someone: It is important for you to encourage your adolescent to tell someone when he/she gets the urge to cut. The first step, talking about the cutting, is the hardest part of the recovery process, but once your child opens up and tells someone how he/she feels, he/she will more than likely experience a sense of calmness and relief. Make sure your adolescent knows that he/she can talk to you about anything.

If your child is not ready to talk to you about his/her feelings, encourage him/her to talk to someone he/she trusts and feels comfortable with such as a school counselor, coach, teacher, doctor, nurse, relative, and/or friend. If your child has trouble verbalizing his/her feelings and/or expressing himself/herself, ask him/her to write down how he/she feels in a journal or note.

Identify Triggers: Your adolescent is probably cutting himself/herself as a way to cope with tension, conflicting feelings, emotional distress, anger, frustration, and/or anxietyThe first thing you want to do is figure out why your adolescent feels the need to self-mutilate. What is going on with him/her? Is he/she anger, frustrated, and/or confused? Does he/she feel pressure to change to fit in with peers? What is happening in his/her relationships? Is he/she having trouble with friends? Is he/she being bullied at school?

One of the hardest parts of understanding cutting behaviors is identifying the real triggers. A mental health professional can help your child figure out his/her cutting-related triggers.

Ask For Help: It is important that you encourage your adolescent to ask for help when he/she feels the urge to self-mutilate. Explain to your child that if he/she asks for help and that person does not help him/her, ask someone else. Sometimes adults dismiss adolescent problems by referring to their issues as “just a phase.”

If you believe that your child is self-mutilating it is imperative that you encourage him/her to talk to a school counselor, psychiatrist, psychologist social worker, or nurse immediately. If you believe that your child needs more advanced care for self-mutilation, you should contact a mental health professional for a child consultation.


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