Over the past few years there have been several articles, and news broadcasts about the flood of kids who purposely hurt themselves through cutting or burning. The statistics of how common intentional self injury among tweens and teens varies, as it is often a secretive behavior that goes unreported to adults and reliable data is unavailable. Current statistics show a concerning, upward trend in this behavior. Per multiple studies conducted between 2008 and 2014, it is estimated that as many as 5 out of 10 adolescents have engaged in self injurious behavior at least once, and approximately 2 in 10 are doing so regularly. Kids see at school, on the internet, and hear about it in the media. Even celebrities have come forward to talk about their own problems with self injury.
Is Cutting a Suicide Attempt?
Behaviors, like cutting are not suicide attempts. People instead purposely cut, burn or otherwise injure themselves as a way to calm anxiety, release feelings of emotional pain, and create feeling for those who have become emotionally numb. While harming doesn’t attempt to end a life, it is evidence of a life in limbo. A person engaging in this behavior is in overwhelming pain, and needs help immediately. According to a 2008 study published by the US National Library of Medicine, 70% of adolescents engaging in self harm have made at least one suicide attempt in the past, and a little over half of them have made multiple attempts.
What is cutting or burning and why would someone intentionally hurt themselves?
As a therapist, I frequently work with tweens and teens who engage in self injury as a form of self soothing and stress management, and have worked with adults who started as adolescents. Intentional self injury usually consists of cutting or burning oneself. Cutting is the most common form of intentional self harm, and statistics suggest more girls cut than boys. Those I have worked have typically found comfort in cutting, and use razor blades or other sharp objects to cut the insides of their arms, shoulders and thighs where the cuts are not visible; and boys may add cutting their chests to these areas of preference. People who find relief in self harm, are at a high risk of continuing into adulthood without help.
Real World Observations
My experience in working with this population, parallels, what is reported by studies and the media. In my practice, I am noticing an increase in self harming and mutilation each year, and many times schools and parents are unaware, because kids are good at hiding it from adults. This is not to say they are hiding it from each other. In fact, many learn to cut from their friends. And many get help because a friend tells a trusted adult out of concern.
Typically, I see kids start cutting at the beginning of middle school. Sixth and seventh graders, as young as ten or eleven years old may first start experimenting with self harm. At this age they are more likely to have low self esteem, depression and anxiety due to the onset of hormones, developmental changes, an increase in social pressure and changes in academic expectations. Kids have communicated to me, there are large peer groups, or cliques where nearly everyone cuts. If a girl falls into one of these cliques she may succumb to peer pressure to try cutting, much like kids try drugs or alcohol to fit in, and to self medicate. These young people may not recognize the danger or morally condemn it because it isn’t an illegal, controlled, substance they have learned about in the past. Unbeknownst to many, self harm, like substance use, can be addictive as well as dangerous, with the risk of infection, bleeding and permanent scarring.
Not everyone who tries cutting or burning continue. Some find it painful and unsatisfying. They might try it once or twice, often making superficial scratches on their arms. They may get caught and stop, or dislike it, and stop. Others may continue with superficial cutting because it is a way of getting needed support from others, and or because it is the norm of their peer group. Because of developmental factors, kids at this age are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure and suggestion as they are starting to search out their personal identities, may be pulling away from their families, and are seeking of the support of peers above all else. These are undoubtedly contributing factors as to why this behavior is on the rise, starting with this age group.
With appropriate support, people can stop. Those whom I have worked with have reported both stopping the behavior, and over time, losing the desire to do it at all. They can learn coping strategies which help them to better handle distressing emotions, and feel less overwhelmed. They often have a greater sense of empowerment and control over their lives and no longer feel the need to hurt themselves. With this success, there is an increase in self esteem, and a greater sense of self value. It is important to be aware, however, people who have habitually self mutilated in the past, are at risk of relapsing if they don’t practice good self care, have a good support system, and use the skills they learned which helped them to stop. It is especially important to maintain connections with caring people and practice good coping strategies.
What should parents do?
Parents have different reactions when discovering their child has been self harming. Most are worried, and shocked, which is understandable. Some become angry and punish their children, some threaten and shame them, and some give them support. If you find out your child is cutting or burning, it is important to stay calm, and avoid criticism or punishment, and seek the help of a mental health professional. Remember, they aren’t doing it to get attention, make you mad, or to get even with you. Many times, kids start cutting in response to a trauma they have experienced which you may not know about. They are in a great deal of pain, and need to be taken seriously and will need consistent love and support. It may also benefit you to find a support group, or trained professional to support you in your efforts to help.
Here are a few additional things you can do to help and increase the safety of your loved one:
Remove objects which they can use to cut or burn like razors, knives, scissors, lighters, etc.;
Don’t allow them to spend long amounts of time alone until the behavior is resolved;
Be kind, supportive and show empathy;
Encourage healthy coping skills such as journaling, drawing, going for walks outside, meditating and listening to soothing music:
If your child is not a place where they can completely stop self harming, she can use a harm reduction technique such as holding a cold ice cube in their hand, or snapping their wrist with a rubber band;
Encourage them to do activities they are good at to increase enjoyment and self esteem;
Be a safe adult your child can come to for comfort when having unsafe urges;
Increase positive activities and time together. Positive feelings and recognition of anything good can reduce negative emotions;
Be patient. Healing takes time, and your child may not be open to discussing or admitting to the behaviors at first
Here are some additional resources you and your child can utilize: