Today "teen cutters" number in the millions. Researchers tell us that thirty percent are boys. Who are the young among us who are prone to cutting and why cutting?
As you think about it, especially as parents, why would anyone tolerate the sting of a razor or the cut of a kitchen knife? For most of us that behavior is unthinkable.
However, maybe we are not paying attention or listening very well. The growing numbers of teenage cutters are not kids from the fringe and are not necessarily teens from terribly dysfunctional homes.
The common profile are middle, upper middle class teenagers who are experiencing terrible emotional pain. The pain becomes so disabling that they feel trapped and powerless.
There is not a family that is functional or dysfunctional that does not have a family member or extended member who is not potentially at risk.
According to the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, from fourteen to thirty-nine percent of adolescents engage in self-mutilating behavior. It is scary because it is so secretive. Other mental health professionals in our area confirm that they are seeing a dramatic increase in "cutters."
As the cases of teenage cutting increase, so too do the growing number of professionals who are developing more comprehensive ways to understand and treat the problem.
Many "cutters" said they began cutting for one of two reasons: to feel less or to feel more. A growing number of teens are suffering from a wide range of mental health issues. They are struggling with anxiety and intense depression. The depression is often triggered by explosive and unstable peer relationships.
The pain becomes so intense that they just want to shut down their emotional waterfalls. Cutting is a painful way to kick start feelings when the numbness becomes more than the pain. Other teens say the opposite, that their emotional volcano is so on the verge of erupting they need something to serve as a control agent to calm them down in times of crisis.
Twenty years ago, the profile of the average teenage cutter was a young teenage girl suffering from a volatile home life who was doing poorly in school and was usually involved in emotionally explosive peer relationships.
In recent times there is no real stereotypical profile. The teen cutters are the rich and the poor, from functional and dysfunctional homes, good students and poor students. They tend to be more mainstream which makes them harder to spot. The secrecy makes it even harder to confront and uncover.
With more and more teens battling depression and anxiety, we as parents need to be more alert. We should not dismiss mood swings or changes in behavior, friends and social groups. Too many teenagers lack the coping skills to manage the range of emotional and social choices they face in a given day.
Parents should be concerned, even if your son or daughter is a good kid. You need to bring home loudly and clearly that cutting is not a secret that can be kept and that it can be lethal. If that occurs, you cannot fix it.
There are few obvious red flags to look for. Know your family's mental health history. Is there any mental illness in the family? Does anyone suffer from anxiety, varying forms of depression and/or addiction?
If your teen wears long sleeves and sweat pants on a hot day, maybe they are hiding something. Temperamental behavior is another clue. Behavioral changes: intense anger and verbal outbursts. If there is a change in the eating or sleeping patterns of your teen, that could be a warning sign.
Quick mood swings could be masking something. Ask why there is such a shift within a half hours time. Always be on the lookout for a hidden stash of band-aids, bandages, kitchen knives and razor blades.
Needless to say, if you discover your son and/or daughter is cutting, even if they are little shallow scratches that look like rash marks, you should not take them lightly.
After talking to your child, whether he or she likes it or not, you should connect as soon as possible with a mental health professional. They are trained to assess this very fragile human condition.
If your teen says they only did it once, more often than not they are lying. That is part of the disorder. However, early intervention is the best way to insure healthy recovery.
This delicate mental health concern is not about poor parenting, punishing, relentlessly asking why and intentionally or unintentionally turning up the guilt. That approach will harden the wall and further the emotional isolation between you and your teen.
The best first step for us as parents is to embrace our son and/or daughter in the moment and to refrain from blame, shame and guilt. We must acknowledge that our son/daughter is doing the best he or she can at the moment and that we know they will do more as they are able.
When the sense of judgment is lifted, most teens are receptive to learning about a wide range of new coping skills, such as impulse control, distress tolerance and thinking about consequences.
JC is seventeen and a senior in high school. He is the oldest in a very tight knit family. He is college bound. Unbeknownst to his parents, in November he started cutting. He broke up with a long time girlfriend and started to become very moody. His senior year was becoming very stressful. He would make comments about the hypocrisy he witnessed and that it was bringing him down. Although he continued to be active in school, he started to withdraw from friends.
In March, one of his classmates noticed some deep cuts by the watchband on his wrist. When confronted, JC made up some story. His friend did not buy it and went to the school social worker. Thanks to the action of that senior, an intervention was made immediately. JC is in outpatient treatment and is responding. He has not cut himself in a month. Everyone in his life is looking at life and relationships a little differently. The secret has been exposed and one more family is on the road to healing and recovery.