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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Self-harming behaviors: What Parents Need to Know About Cutting

Understanding Self-Harming Behaviors in Middle School

Caryl Altman, MS, School Counseling , RTC
ECMS 6th & 7th grade Counselor

Adolescence is that very unique time of life when predictable, complacent children begin to morph into independence-seeking, mood fluctuating, curious young teens. Middle school children experience rapid growth and changes affecting all areas of their lives, including cognitive, academic, social and physical and emotional.  We all have experienced these changes.  However, today’s young teens are challenged with a higher level of expectations in the 21st Century. 

Middle school is an exciting time; however, it can also be a stressful time.  As school counselor for 20+ years, I have seen first hand how stress adversely impacts our children.  Some will seek out adults for help; others will keep silent and find their own way to get relief from stress and emotional pain.  Unfortunately, some teens will engage in self-harm, which comes in many forms.  The most common type of self-injury is cutting.

Why Would A Young Person Do This?
As parents, cutting behavior can be both frightening and difficult to understand.  Teens who cut are usually seeking relief from pressure, anger, shame, relationship issues, etc.  These children may need to develop positive coping skills in order to handle difficult life issues.  Without such skills, they may feel overwhelmed and out of control.  Teens who cut are often seeking a way to deal with feelings and to be “in control.”

Who Cuts?
Self-injury is more common in females, but it also happens with males.  Teens and young adults are the primary group who hurt themselves as a means of coping with emotions.  Cutting behaviors happen across the board and are not specific to socio-economic status or ethnic group.

What Parents Can Do
Usually, teens who cut seek to hide the cutting behavior.  They guard their emotions carefully.  They cover their cuts (never baring their arms or legs, not wanting to wear a bathing suit, etc).  In other words, cutting can go on for a long time without someone noting that injury is present.

Once the cutting behavior is discovered, there are ways for you to help your child.

* First, be aware of your own emotions.  You may experience feelings of shock,  guilt, anger, fear, or sadness.  These feelings are natural and understandable. 

*Educate yourself about cutting.  Knowledge is power and will give you the tools to help your child towards healing and resolving his/her issues. 

* Talk to your child.  As painful as this can be, it’s imperative that you speak with your child and let him/her know you are aware of the cutting.  Follow that up with expressing your love and concern as well as your intentions to help and support him/her unconditionally. 

* Be there for your child.  Listen to him/her and help problem solve difficult situations. Encourage the child to talk about everyday experiences and put feelings, needs, and disappointments into words.

* Spend quality time together doing fun, relaxing activities, or simply hang out together.

* Be aware of how you handle stress and daily pressures.  Be willing to make changes in your own behaviors if you are quick to anger or self-critical.
*Seek professional help.  Therapy can assist you and your child in dealing with the hurt and as well as developing coping skills.  It is very important to find a therapist with whom your child feels comfortable.  In addition, your child’s pediatrician can be invaluable.  School counselors are good resources in finding help for you and your child.

The most important thing you can do for your child is to be patient.  Healing takes time, love and support. With encouragement and patience, your child can stop cutting and grow into a healthy, happy person. 

Mental Health Association of Arizona

A great website from the UK on cutting and self-harming behaviors

Further questions:  email Ms. Caryl Altman at