One thing you may want to avoid if you discover your child is cutting

“She just does it for attention,” is the statement I hear most often from parents with children who self-mutilate, and forgive me but this is often a wholly inadequate take on the situation, a judgment used by parents as a quick-fix diagnosis to relieve them of the mental shock brought on by this bizarre and confusing behavior.

And I get it. When I was in high school 20 years ago one rarely if ever heard of cutters. I don’t think cutting was even prevalent enough to have a term for it. There were exceptions of course, but nothing happening back then remotely compares to what we are seeing today. Cutting and other forms of self-harm have truly arrived at the epidemic stage, and getting worse. Why your child self-harms can be one of the most mystifying and nonsensical behaviors to try and understand, but hopefully this short article will shed some light.

If my reader learns anything from this article it is that they should, if they care about connecting with their kids, reframe from using the, “you just do this for attention” accusation. Of all the kids I have counselled both privately and in group settings it is this charge that almost guarantees a disconnection with your child, at a time when connection is more important than ever.

That’s not to say that some kids aren’t cutting just for attention. Serious cutters will attest to the fact that probably more kids cut for attention than otherwise (and by “serious” I mean those who self-harm for truly pathological reasons as opposed to your ‘fit-in-with-the-crowd,’ ‘take-the-cutting-challenge’ type of behavior). Below I’ll briefly discuss two of the most prevalent reason that cutters cut. Many more could be given but these are the ones I find most often in my work:

1) Cutting as a means of dissociation

If a child has experienced early life trauma or suffers from extreme anxiety cutting provides a soothing sensation from the emotional pain. This sounds counterintuitive for the regular functioning person, but one of the minds main defenses for surviving traumatic or stressful events is to dissociate. Cutters can create a dissociative state by self-mutilation. Child psychiatrist Bruce Perry explains that, “In dissociative states people can become so disconnected from reality that they move into a dreamlike consciousness where nothing seems real and they feel little emotional or physical pain.” He goes on to explain that cutting releases brain opioids, which are the brain’s natural heroin-like substance that produces a calm and distant feeling from one’s problems.

If your child is involved in some form of serious self-harm it is important to stop, take a deep breath, and try to remove yourself from the situation emotionally just long enough to put your scientist hat on and determine if your child is struggling with memories of past traumas and/or experiencing high levels of anxiety, and if so why. The easiest way to find out is by asking your child, asking him or her in the most understanding, caring, non-threatening way possible.

2) Cutting as a means of embodiment

This second reason is almost the exact opposite of the one above. Rather than attempting to dissociate, the cutter is actually trying to feel pain in an effort to ground himself back into reality. This type of person cuts to leave the mental state where life feels false and imaginal, where they feel like a phantom in a world without substance, and grounds them back to their own body—or what is sometimes called ‘embodiment.’ It is the idea that if I can at least feel pain I know I’m alive. Some kids feel so disembodied through constant suppression of negative emotion, be it through drugs, sex, movies, work, you name it, that life begins to feel like an episode of The Living Dead (hence why I think the modern zombie craze is so popular). And for the adolescent who is breaking away from childhood and entering into a completely new existence—adulthood—both psychically and physically, extreme behaviors are just their way of getting things done (think of your own teenage years and cringe, go ahead, you know you were nuts).

For the serious cutter there is usually very, very little attention getting in the equation. This is why the majority of cutters (at least the ones I have known) cut in places that cannot be seen, even if on the arms they typically cover them with long sleeve shirts, no matter if it is the middle of Summer. It’s not a behavior for boasting but of incredible shame.

And think about the charge. Don’t you want your children to want your attention? To know what a truly psychotic child looks like find the ones who no longer want attention from their parents. That’s when things have gone way off the tracks. It’s natural to want attention and for parents to accuse their child of cutting in order to get their attention sends the message that even wanting attention is reprehensible.

But what if it were true? What if they were cutting to get your attention? If it’s that difficult for your child to get your attention then who is the one with the real problem?

Anyway, it’s just a poorly conceived accusation and as I’ve urged in this article it should be avoided at all costs.

That’s just for starts. The rest is all about the difficult business of fighting to get your child back to health no matter how much they might annoy you, no matter how much hell they’ve caused you, no matter how fed up you are and praying to God they’d just get over adolescents already. That’s all. Easy, right?

Thanks for reading.

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2 thoughts on “One thing you may want to avoid if you discover your child is cutting

  1. I appreciate your voice for teens. I have an overly large empathy for people in that stage of life. Probably due to how big of a challenge it was for both me and my husband – we were messes and we need more voices like yours in the world to bring the adults to the reality of the situation; who, unfortunately, seem all too often consumed with their own perceptions and expectations (myself included – my kids are 8 but I feel like I’m always priming to be real with them through the next phase). (forgive me if this double posts, log in troubles).

  2. That is a good description of the view of self harm as currently held by most psychologists. I expect it has some truth in it, but overall probably says more about contemporary psychologists and current fashions of thought than it says about the reasons for self harm. Psychology is more a fashion parade of ideas than it is a science. We can look at its history and see that few of its ideas last.

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