Cutting and self-harming behaviors
Michael Weinberg, PhD, LPC is the senior manager at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Center. His office can be reached at (602) 865-5437.
Question: Why do some young people cut themselves and what can parents do if they know or suspect that their child is engaging in self-harming behaviors?
Answer: Cutting, or other forms of self-harm, is most often – but not always – found in young females in their teens and 20s. Males can also engage in self-harm behaviors, but it is less common. Generally speaking, people who cut are in emotional pain and they do this with the belief that it’s a way of helping them cope with whatever trauma is going on in their lives or from previous trauma that remains unresolved.
What cutting is frequently about is experiencing real pain that can be instantly felt as opposed to emotional pain, which is less tangible than physical pain. While difficult to understand, cutting can serve to ground or bring control to people who may otherwise not have control or a defined role in their own lives. When you think about the cutter, there are three distinct roles that come into play – the victim, the abuser, and the healer. The individual is in control of all three role, and thus, in control of her own pain.
If parents see or suspect that their child is cutting, the first thing they need to do is talk with the child about the reasons she is doing this.
Parents need to talk openly with their child and ask good questions about what’s going on or what may be complicating their child’s life. Parents need to be active listeners without being judgmental. Through open communication and active involvement in the child’s life, the family can begin to understand what issues their child is experiencing and attempt to address these problems. Once parents learn that a child is committing self-harm behaviors, I recommend that the family considers professional help from a licensed mental health provider with expertise on this subject.
When getting help, it’s very important for parents to recognize that this is not just the child’s problem. Instead, this is a family issue where everyone needs to work together and get the help necessary to address whatever problems may exist and teach the young person how to feel better about the world they live in.