Resisting the Urge to Cut
If you’ve been cutting and you want to stop, here are some approaches that might help you.
For people who cut, doing something different may be a big change. Making this change can take time because you are learning new ways of dealing with the things that led you to cut. The tips you’ll see below can get you started. But a therapist or counselor can do more to help you heal old hurt and use your strengths to cope with life’s struggles.
Start by being aware of which situations are likely to trigger your urge to cut. Make a commitment that this time you will not follow the urge, but will do something else instead.
Then make a plan for what you will do instead of cutting when you feel this urge.
Below are some tips you can try when you feel the urge to cut. We’ve put them into several categories because different people cut for different reasons. So certain techniques will work better for some people than others.
Look through all the tips and try the ones that you think might work for you. You may need to experiment because not all of these ideas will work for everyone. For example, some readers have told us that snapping a rubber band works for them as a substitute for cutting but others say that the rubber band triggers an urge to snap it too hard and they end up hurting themselves.
If one tip isn’t right for you, that’s OK. Use your creativity to find a better idea. Or talk with your therapist to get other ideas on what could work for you. The idea is to find a substitute for cutting — something that satisfies a need you might feel without being as harmful as cutting.
You may also find that one of these ideas works for you sometimes but not always. That’s OK too. What a person needs can vary from time to time and from situation to situation.
The techniques listed on the following pages will help you think about why you might cut — as well as offer ideas on other things to do when you feel like cutting. The more you learn about what’s underneath your cutting behavior, the better you will be able to understand and develop healthy ways to heal that pain.
Things to Distract You
Like all urges, the urge to cut will pass if you wait it out. Distracting yourself with something else helps time go by and gets your mind off the urge to cut. The more you wait out the urge without giving in, the more your urges will decrease over time.
Here are some things you can try while waiting for a cutting urge to pass:
- call a friend and talk about something completely different
- take a shower (make sure you don’t have razors in the shower)
- go for a walk or run, take a bike ride, dance like crazy, or get some other form of exercise
- play with a pet
- watch TV (change the channel if the show gets upsetting or features cutting)
- drink a glass of water
Things to Soothe and Calm You
Sometimes people cut because they’re agitated or angry — even though they may not recognize that feeling. If that’s true for you, it can help to do something calming when you feel the need to cut.
Even if you’re not sure why you’re cutting, it’s worth giving these ideas a try:
- play with a pet
- take a shower (make sure you don’t have razors in the shower)
- take a bath (make sure you don’t have razors near the tub)
- listen to soothing music that will shift your mood
- try a breathing exercise
- try some relaxing yoga exercises
Things to Help You Express the Pain and Deep Emotion
Some people cut because the emotions that they feel seem way too powerful and painful to handle. Often, it may be hard for them to recognize these emotions for what they are — like anger, sadness, or other feelings. Here are some alternatives to cutting that you can try:
- draw or scribble designs on paper using a red pen or paint on white paper — if it helps, make the paint drip
- write out your hurt, anger, or pain using a pen and paper
- draw the pain
- compose songs or poetry to express what you’re feeling
- listen to music that talks about how you feel
Things to Help Release Physical Tension and Distress
Sometimes, doing things that express anger or release tension can help a person gradually move away from cutting. Try these ideas:
- go for a walk or run, ride a bike, dance like crazy, or get some other form of exercise
- rip up some paper
- write out your hurt, anger, or pain using a pen and paper
- scribble on paper using a red pen
- squeeze, knead, or smoosh a stress ball, handful of clay, or Play-Doh
Things to Help You Feel Supported and Connected
If you cut because you feel alone, misunderstood, unloved, or disconnected, these ideas may help:
- call a friend
- play with a pet
- make a cup of tea, some warm milk, or cocoa
- try some yoga exercises that help you feel grounded, such as triangle pose
- try a breathing exercise like the one in the button above
- curl up on your bed in a soft, cozy blanket
Substitutes for the Cutting Sensation
You’ll notice that all the tips in the lists above have nothing to do with the cutting sensation. When you have the idea to self-injure, start by trying the ideas on those lists — such as making art, walking your dog, or going for run.
If they don’t help, move on to the substitute behaviors shown below.
These substitute behaviors won’t work for everyone. They also don’t help people get in touch with why they are cutting. What they do is provide immediate relief in a way that doesn’t involve cutting, and therefore holds less risk of harm.
- rub an ice cube on your skin instead of cutting it
- wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it gently against your skin
- draw on the skin with a soft-tipped red pen in the place you might usually cut
You Can Do It
Cutting can be a difficult pattern to break. But it is possible.
If you want help overcoming a self-injury habit and you’re having trouble finding anything that works for you, talk with a therapist. Getting professional help to overcome the problem doesn’t mean that someone is weak or crazy. Therapists and counselors are trained to help people discover inner strengths that help them heal. These inner strengths can then be used to cope with life’s problems in a healthy way.
Alternatives to Cutting
If you are cutting yourself and are seeking alternative ways to stop, I applaud you.
Many people, especially young teens, are or have cut themselves to help cope with strong emotions, including feelings of sadness, loneliness, shame, frustration, rejection, and anger.
The following are ways on how to stop cutting yourself but they may not be enough.
I strongly suggest you talk to someone about your problem. Talk to someone you can trust (a parent, teacher, coach, school counselor, doctor, or nurse).
People who used to cut say they found much relief after opening up to someone, although it was hard to bring themselves to do it.
How to Stop Cutting Yourself
Alternatives to cutting by distracting yourself until the urge of cutting passes:
• Talk to a friend (about something that won’t upset you).
• Go for a walk or go on a bike ride.
• Play with your pet or take them for a walk.
• Watch TV (watch something that holds your interest and not upset you).
• Read a good book.
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• Work on a puzzle.
• Play a musical instrument.
Alternatives to cutting by calming yourself:
• Listen to soothing music.
• Do breathing exercises
- sit comfortably
- close your eyes
- inhale slowly through your nose (using your stomach and not your chest)
- hold your breath for 3-5 seconds
- slowly exhale from your mouth
- do this about 5 times.
• Close your eyes and picture yourself somewhere peaceful.
• Curl up in bed with your pet or a warm cup of cocoa.
Alternatives to cutting by expressing your emotions:
• Write down your feelings.
• Compose poetry or a song.
Alternatives to cutting by releasing tension:
• Turn on some music and dance (using fast movements).
• Go for a run or shoot some hoops.
• Scribble (use a red color on white paper).
• Squeeze a ball or some Play-Doh.
Learning how to stop cutting yourself can be difficult, but it is not impossible. Sometimes, professional help from a therapist may be necessary and that is okay (it does not mean you are weak or crazy). They are trained to help you find why you are cutting yourself and can help you cope with problems in a much healthier way.
Free Hotline to Help you Stop Cutting Yourself:
Please read this disclaimer regarding the information contained within this article.
Next up: Step By Step Guide To The Perfect Golf Grip
PGA Professional Alex Elliott offers some great advice on how to stop cutting across the ball through impact
Playlist 19 videos
Slice Tips: How To Stop Cutting Across The Ball
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How To Stop Cutting Across The Ball
Getting out of bad habits that have been ingrained for an extended period of time takes patience and perseverance. In fact, to make a change to an already-effective action isn’t easy. But by using this exaggerated drill and understanding the concept of feel vs real, it can be done.
And of course, as with everything in golf, you need to get on top of the basics first if you desire success, especially if you’re cutting across the ball. That includes things like ball position, alignment and posture.
But once you’ve done that, Alex Elliott’s training tips will help you develop a better swing pattern that’ll stop you slicing it for good.
How to stop cutting across the ball
The beauty of this is that it’s so simple to set up. First, if there is a line on your ball, point it towards your target. From there, you want to create a gate to swing the clubhead through that will really exaggerate the opposite move to what you’re battling.
This can be done with balls or tees, placing one behind and to the right of the ball you intend to hit as well as one in front and to the left.
A visual focus like this is a great way to encourage an in-to-out path as it creates a feeling and an image you can take with you to the course.
In tennis terms, it should feel like you’re whipping a wicked topspin forehand.
Once you’ve set the drill up, raise your driver off the ground and take some initial practice swings to really get a sense of what you’re trying to achieve. Then give it a go and see how you get on.
It’s an exaggerated way of practising that helps you learn the difference between feel and real and should work you into a nice middle ground.
And another reason it’s effective is because with the tees or balls in place, you should get some feedback as to whether you are swinging the club through the gate you’ve created.
As a side note, we’d recommend using tees to start with to ensure no damage is done in the event of any mishaps.
Related: How Slices And Pulls Are Linked
Over time, the benefits from honing this move will be plentiful. For one, it will improve the quality of your strike, which in turn will increase your swing speed, ball speed and therefore distance.
And not only this, but it’ll allow you more margin for error to actually hit more fairways.
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She’s also a psychotherapist, the author of the bestselling book “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do,” and the host of The Verywell Mind Podcast.
Ann-Louise T. Lockhart, PsyD, ABPP, is a board-certified pediatric psychologist, parent coach, author, speaker, and owner of A New Day Pediatric Psychology, PLLC.
It can be hard to imagine why anyone would want to cut themselves or hurt themselves on purpose. And for parents who discover their teen is engaging in self-injury, it can be confusing, terrifying, and downright frustrating.
Self-harm can be fairly common among teens. Studies consistently estimate that 15 to 20% of teens harm themselves at one time or another. Fortunately, with support most teens learn healthier coping skills and stop self-injury.
What Constitutes Self-Harm?
Self-harm describes any deliberate action intended to cause physical pain. Adolescent males engage in this behavior too, but it is most often females who hurt their bodies in an attempt to deal with difficult feelings or situations. Cutting or scratching the skin with razor blades or other sharp objects is the most common form of self-injury.
Other ways to self-harm include:
- burning the skin with a cigarette, match or lighter
- hitting the chest or extremities
- banging the head against the wall
- pulling hair from the head, or other places
- re-opening or picking at wounds
- biting or pinching the skin
Why Do Teens Cut Themselves?
Teens who hurt themselves aren’t crazy and their self-injury doesn’t mean they’re suicidal. Instead, it just means they’re having trouble coping with their pain in a healthy manner.
The physical act of hurting their bodies provides a temporary sense of emotional relief. A teen who cuts himself (or burns himself) begins to focus on the injury as the reason for the pain.
It also provides a sense of control. A teen who engages in self-injury is likely to feel like they can control the pain better. In addition, the injury releases endorphins into the bloodstream, which also provides a temporary boost of mood.
So a stressed-out teen may cut their arms as a way to relieve stress. Or a teen who is struggling to deal with a breakup may cut their chest as a way to experience physical pain, as opposed to just emotional pain.
If you or your teen are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
How to Help a Teen Who Self-Harms
You may see scratches or cuts on a teen who is engaging in self-injury. You might notice bandages or your teen may wear long sleeves or cover their body even when it’s hot outside.
If you suspect your teen is deliberately injuring themselves, it’s important to intervene. These steps can help you start a discussion and find them the professional help they need.
1. Ask your teen directly if they are engaging in self-harm. Often the direct approach is the most effective. Be clear that your goal is to help them, not to judge or punish Ask, “Did you make those cuts on your arm on purpose?” or “Are you hurting yourself?”
2. Acknowledge your teen’s pain. Telling a teen to stop or passing judgment won’t be effective. Validate their feelings and express concern that they must be feeling really bad if they are hurting themselves.
3. Identify activities your teen can do when they feel the urge to hurt themselves. Calling a friend, going for a walk, or drawing are just a few possible activities that could help your teen express their feelings in a healthier way.
4. Take steps to change your teens’ self-harming behavior. Talk to your child’s pediatrician to gain a referral to a therapist. A mental health professional can teach your teen healthier ways to regulate their emotions.
5. Help your teen create a list of people to talk to. Talking to trusted friends and family can help them cope with stress and reduce their self-injury. Make a list of caring adults your teen can reach out to, such as a grandparent, aunt or uncle, friends’ parents, or neighbors that your teen can confide in.
6. Be patient with your teen. Self-harming behavior takes the time to develop and will take the time to change. It is ultimately up to the teen to make the choice to help themselves.
With early identification, support from their family, and professional assistance, they can successfully stop self-harming.
My Child Is Deliberately Cutting Herself: What Do I Do?
Question: My Child Is Deliberately Cutting Herself: What Do I Do?
When I was in the first year of my psychiatry residency:
- I learned that patients sometimes cut their own skin.
- I learned that some people take sharp objects and make (mostly) superficial cuts on their forearms or legs, or elsewhere on their bodies.
- I learned that these patients would wear long sleeves if they had cut their arms, and long pants if they had cut their legs. They didn’t, it seemed, want others to know that they had cut themselves; they were ashamed.
- I even learned that on inpatient units, some patients would go to impressive lengths to obtain sharp objects with which to make their minor and repetitive incisions.
Most importantly, I learned that this behavior was almost never suicidal.
In fact, most of the patients who cut themselves felt LESS suicidal after doing so.
I also learned that, among those physicians who were not psychiatrically trained, this behavior was viewed as incredibly disturbing, and even a bit repulsive. As a young doctor eager to process my experiences, I recall sharing with my friends who were training in other fields what I had learned about non-suicidal cutting behavior.
“That’s awful,” they said. In fact, it seemed to bother them more than psychosis, mania, or much more fatal attempts at suicide. “Why would anyone cut themselves?”
I thought about what patients had told me.
“Why do your cut yourself?” I asked one young woman whose mother insisted she show me the multiple thin, red scars that lined the insides of her lower arms.
The young woman reluctantly rolled up her sleeves to show me the marks.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think it’s the only time I feel settled.”
“Does it hurt?” I asked her.
“Not really,” she replied, seemingly relieved to be discussing the behavior that she herself didn’t quite understand. “I mean, I feel it afterwards, but right before I make the cut, I’m usually feeling totally freaked out. The cutting…calms me. I don’t think of cutting when I’m freaking out—sometime I don’t even remember getting the razor. But, when I make that cut, everything comes into focus and I can breathe again.”
That conversation was so evocative to me that I shared it with my supervisors and mentors. I learned that this behavior was common and signaled distress, although almost never suicidal intent. In fact, I came to view cutting as an action that takes the place of an intolerable feeling, and I learned not to shun the behavior, but instead to take both a curious and practical approach to it.
I would check whether someone who cuts had received a tetanus shot. I could perform all the psychiatry in the world, but it wouldn’t do a thing in the face of tetanus. That question—Have you had a tetanus shot recently?—seemed to ground things for the session; after all, the worst thing I could do was freak out the way it seemed so many non-psychiatric doctors did when confronted with this behavior. Instead, I was straightforward, non-judgmental, and honest. And, because I’m human, and because most of us are trained, both culturally and evolutionarily, to be put off by self-harm, I sought to overcome my own biases.
The point of this post isn’t to exhaustively review the phenomena of self-cutting. That would take thousands of words, maybe even a whole book. The point here is to draw attention to the behavior and to offer advice to parents and caregivers about how to proceed if they notice it in a child. There is ample literature to suggest that many doctors are still very put off by these actions; thus, a calm and caring approach from caregivers is crucial. And, part of this approach involves a cursory understanding of the phenomena.
Here’s what we know about self-cutting:
- First, cutting is rarely suicidal. As a parent or clinician, you should absolutely ask about suicide, but at the same time, you should avoid the assumption that self-cutting equates suicidal ideation.
- Lots of people deliberately cut themselves. Estimates suggest that as many as one out every 25 people will engage in deliberate non-suicidal self-cutting at some point in their lives. These people might not have diagnosable psychiatric syndromes, but they do suffer from higher levels of anxiety, symptoms of personality disorders, and significant shame.
- Borderline personality disorder is frequently associated with self-cutting, often coupled with trauma and related experiences. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has an extremely useful page that addresses these issues in summary format.
- Although the etiology of cutting is not clear, deficits in receptors in the brain that help to self-soothe are often implicated. Recent studies have measured these deficits in patients who cut themselves, and some of the medication interventions involve triggering these receptors in order to interrupt the cutting behavior.
What do you do if you your child is self-cutting?
- Don’t freak out. Cutting is associated with shame and judgment. Although becoming undone when you see that your child has cut him or herself makes perfect sense, do your best to stay calm. Your child needs help, and the first line of defense is your pediatrician.
- Many sites of information suggest that “cold parenting” and similar derogatory terms are to blame. These explanations are, at best, massively oversimplified, and at worst, downright wrong and damaging. Again, the AACAP website is a good resource.
- Don’t discount the possibility of suicidal ideation, but at the same time, understand that it is rare when coupled with self-cutting. However, if your child feels at all suicidal, seek emergency care. Stay calm, but act.
- Remember that many doctors find this behavior difficult to tolerate. If your clinician seems rude or intolerant, seek another healthcare provider.
At the end of the day, self-cutting is common and highly treatable. Those are the take-home messages.
Stay calm, get help, and know that this behavior responds well to intervention.
Introduction: How to Stop Cutting Yourself? 4 Things to Know
How to stop cutting yourself is a very common question from
teen and adult alike, it is clear that the number of people who are self
harming is on the increase. What many people are not aware of is the fact that there are
tremendous numbers of cutters worldwide; it is not uncommon for close friends
and family members to be completely in the dark about their loved one self harm.
How to stop cutting yourself is question that so many ask and sadly
there have been very few real answers. The more information that you have about this
behavior the better; in this instructable we will take a closer look at self
harm and see what you can do about it.
Step 1: 1. You Are Not Alone
The first thing to understand about self harm is that you are
not alone; often those who self harm feel like they are alone in the world. It
is a difficult thing emotionally to self harm; it is even more difficult
when you believe that no one understands. It is a fact that most cutters have
admitted that they know very few people whom they truly can confide in about self harm. It is
important to know that self harm is a worldwide problem; you are not alone in
dealing with this issue.
When addressing how to stop cutting yourself it is good to know that you are not alone.
A worldwide problem
According to study from England it was revealed that 1 out of
every 12 young people self harm, the statistics are worst for females, 1 out of
every 10 females under age 25 self harm.
The usual method of self harm is a deliberate
cutting of the skin.
Professor Keith Hawton, director of the Centre for Suicide
Research at Oxford University, and Professor Rory O’Connor from the University
of Stirling, said the result of the study raised ‘important questions
relevant to the prevention of persistent self-harm and the onset of self-harm
and suicidal behavior in early adulthood’.
There are many who are seeking how to stop cutting but are not finding a
Step 2: Stress
There is a strong connection between stress and self harm. School, employment, relationships or even self
image are often at the root cause of self harm, your stress may be subtle and at other times it can be quite obvious,but the bottom line is that circumstances can trigger a desire to self harm.
The issue of stress revolves around control, when we feel that we are not in
control this can signal a stress response which can lead to a self harming
Step 3: The Brain
Most discusses on how to stop cutting yourself ignore the brain; it is a rare discussion which
speaks of the role in which the brain plays in regards to self harm. In linking the brain and
self harm it leads us to how the brain reacts to stress. When under stress the brain releases a
hormone called cortisol, most cutters experience a stress response before the
urge to cut, they may feel the “need to cut”; this is coming from an
often hidden stress.
When under stress the brain releases a hormone which is actually detrimental to your mental
Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase
risk for depression,
mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were
published in Science
linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and
decreased resilience—especially in adolescence.
Self harm is dangerous but it is also important to
recognize that the underlying causes( your stress) can ruin your health,
mentally and physically.
Step 4: Mental Illness and Self Harm
It is important to recognize self harm as a mental health issue, this does not mean that you
are crazy but it does mean that you can often feel like you are being driven
crazy by circumstances. The reason that self harm is considered a mental
illness is due to the fact that when a person harms themselves, psychiatrists see this as a cry for help. They cutter is taking stress out literally on themselves”.
What leads to self harm is an inners stress which usually
comes from outer circumstances, the end result is the person directs this inner
stress back on self.
Once a person exhibits harm to self or others they behavior may be
classified as a mental illness. How to stop cutting yourself is a question that
can only be answered when the root causes of the behavior are addressed.
It is important to know that many who are questioned as to why they self harm admit that they simply “don’t
know why”, but this is not so mysterious as it may seem.
Often we ignore past and present stresses, abuses and other experiences which contribute to self
harm. Hopefully this instructable has given you a better understanding of self harm.
Please do not forget that if you are cutting yourself you are
not alone .Please see this important article of Self harm. Click Here Stop Cutting Myself
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How do I make her stop?
Parents are uniquely affected by a child’s self-injury. It can look and feel so much like a suicidal gesture that most parents experience deep fear and, quite often, anger.
Virtually all parents feel the sense of frustration and helplessness that the parent below describes. So, I thought I would share this parent’s question and my response in the hope that it helps other parents out there in a similar situation.
I’m wondering if you can offer any advice about my daughter. She has been self-injuring on and off for a couple of years now, and I feel pretty confused about what to do next. It seems like she gets it under control, and then it comes back up again. I feel frustrated seeing her go through this and feeling helpless about how to stop it.
She doesn’t like to talk with me about her self-injury—she gets annoyed when I bring it up and says I don’t understand her. I’m feeling isolated because I don’t know who to go to for help, and I scrutinize my parenting decisions as well as my daughter’s life and her choices. She seems stuck in this pattern and I’m unsure what to do. Please let me know what you think.
A Concerned Mom
Dear Concerned Mom,
Wow, what a journey you have been on! It’s understandable that you would feel confused; I imagine that the only person who experiences more confusion than you in this situation is your child.
In addition to facing deep feelings that may not have been thought about or recognized, your child is entering a phase of very rapid neurological and physical changes. This causes highs and lows unlike anything else we experience over the life course.
I have no idea where the truth lies in the each of your interpretations about what is happening, but I do think that it would be great if your child saw a therapist once a week to help navigate through all of this. Rather than saying that you have someone for them to talk to, I would look for someone (or more than one — road testing is always good since client-therapist fit is important) together and let your child know that you’d really like to give them another person to lean on.
Let your child know that counselors are great for this since they have to hold everything (except abuse or suicidality) confidential, and they are outsiders in the family, which can be really great since this allows them to have a non-biased perspective and to really understand their clients.
In other words, I would make it very easy and appealing for your child to see a therapist. You cannot force it, obviously (except if you are really worried and seeing someone becomes a condition you impose — not ideal, but it can work if things start to spiral). But you can open the door and make it really easy to walk through.
If your child does not walk through that door now, keep the door open as your child may have a change of heart. Persistence is one thing that parents have that children really benefit from since each developmental stage is so different.
Other than this, it is also sometimes really helpful if a self-focused and struggling teen can get involved in something that allows them to give to or focus on other people (or plants or animals—anything outside of the self). Any programs that permit your child to do service or work as an apprentice in some area of interest can be great for building self-esteem and positive feelings. Your child may be in a funky space for awhile—the changes often go on for a few years (though the behavior stuff may shift)—so encouraging your child to continue to look for opportunities to get connected and involved with others and to shift the focus from thinking about life or social woes and school will all be helpful.
Lastly, you need support as much as your child does. You will be best able to really hang in there for the long haul if you have someone to talk to and to bounce things off of. Even if your child is not willing to see someone, I strongly encourage you to find either a therapist or parent group of some sort where you can bring concerns, ideas, issues, whatever and ask for other people’s reflections and experience. It really helps!
Ultimately, your child has to take agency for and in their own life. This is your child’s journey and responsibility. There really is nothing you can do to make things better for your child from the inside (the mind and heart, that is). Where parents really matter is in a) modeling healthy emotional management, authentic living, and positive thinking, b) maintaining positive but reasonable expectations, c) opening doors whenever you can and inviting kids through (and then accepting their “no” with as much grace as possible and without getting so discouraged that you stop opening the doors), and MOST importantly, d) taking care of themselves in real ways. This means being gentle with yourself when you feel like you have blown it or done/said something you did not want to do/say and putting your own needs in front when it is clearly your turn to take time and space to self-nurture.
I really wish I had some piece of advice guaranteed to make it all better. Remember that you have time and that this, too, will pass. The more peace you can find in your own heart, the more your child is likely to sense that and then to want to know what that peace feels like.
The greatest gift you have to offer your child is offering what you most want for her/him to yourself. I know it sounds odd, but it really works — particularly good for kids since they watch us so, so closely. The more they see and feel how you do it; they are much more likely to be able to mimic you.
Part one: Molly’s story
Posted November 28, 2012
- What Is Self-Harm?
- Find a therapist near me
Molly is a high-performing 16-year-old teen girl in her junior year of high school. She has a nice group of friends, works hard in school and gets excellent grades. Molly also has multiple activities she admits she doesn’t really enjoy anymore but feels are necessary to “get into a good college.”
Molly remembers a time when she enjoyed both school and her activities, but is far too burned out now to enjoy either.
What most people don’t know about Molly is that she sometimes cuts herself, in the privacy of her bedroom or bathroom, “just to feel relief or sometimes, just to feel something.”
“It started as an impulse. Of course I know a lot of girls who cut so the idea came to me and I started with a paper clip. I ran it along the inside of my arm until it made a mark. Then I went deeper until I made myself bleed. It was totally engrossing and I can’t explain why but it made me feel better. I graduated to straight edge razors and, at the time, it seemed perfectly fine to me. It was a little secret compartment of my life where I had all the power and control.”
Molly’s mom saw the cuts when she walked into the bathroom as Molly got out of the shower one day. Scars and partially healed lines marked Molly’s abdomen and upper thighs. Understandably, Molly’s mom was alarmed and confronted Molly.
“It’s a sickening moment when it hits you. You have a child and you love that child and you just don’t think she’ll grow up to purposely hurt and scar herself. Fear and anger and confusion all blew up inside of me and I regret the way I handled it.”
Molly was enraged to have her secret revealed. She was also overwhelmed by the experience of seeing the cutting from her mom’s point of view. She felt her mom did not understand at all. To make matters worse, her mom began watching her nervously. Followup conversations were awkward. Frustrated and concerned, Molly’s mom soon connected Molly to therapy.
Shocked and Confused Parents
The idea of cutting oneself, on purpose, to feel better is a mindblower for parents. At one of my parent education talks, a mom asked about cutting and one of the dads in the audience assumed we were talking about “cutting class.” His jaw dropped when it was explained to him.
Of course, we knew kids who made poor coping choices when we were teens and made a few ourselves. The low hanging fruit of the Coping Tree includes self-medication with drugs and alcohol, shoplifting, reckless driving, high-risk sex, and other non-beneficial activities that “fix” feelings while putting the teen at risk.
But teens who secretly cut themselves as a way to express, control and witness their emotional pain? Jaws drop.
While self-harming is not a new phenomenon, this particular offshoot is showing a disturbing rise in popularity. Accurate statistics are hard get but if you ask a professional who works with teen girls (therapists, counselors, teachers, coaches); you are likely to hear it is becoming more and more common.
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How It Starts
Cutting has a contagious element and therefore spreads in stressful environments that contain greater numbers of vulnerable subjects. Eager to please, overly stressed teen girls are at risk.
Many girls share that they are sickened yet fascinated when they first hear of cutting. From there, the information is stored on a shelf in their consciousness. It is an option.
Depending on factors including stress level, stress sensitivity, emotional development, emotional support and overall lifestyle health and balance, a teen girl either will or won’t explore cutting herself.
Why It “Works”
Cutting is a coping mechanismm which means it is a way to regulate feelings. Unfortunately, it “works” in that teens report it makes them feel better. They like that they can control it, keep it secret, see and feel a “result,” and express emotions people don’t seem to like, especially anger and sadness.
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To make things worse, the brain wires quickly for this behavior, creating a stress + cutting = relief circuit that becomes harder and harder to break over time.
Ideally, teens employ healthier coping strategies when under stress. For example, a stressed teen might exercise, talk with friends, take a nap, have a good cry, or write in a journal to relieve stress.
Instead, cutting and other low ranking coping strategies are hastily adopted because our teens have no time, support, or creativity to develop better coping mechanisms.
Cutting Is A Symptom
It’s important to think of cutting as a symptom, which means it is secondary to a core problem. The core problem is that fewer teens have an opportunity to experience full and healthy development in a reasonably (not overwhelmingly) challenging environment.
Externally, our teens are under too much pressure. Internally, our teens lack sufficient emotional development to help them cope with it.
External stressors are numerous, varied and interrelated. Teen girls today experience much more stress than what was common in their parents’ generation. Much more than boys, girls put themselves under extraordinary pressure to be super smart, super attractive, and super well-liked (preferably adored) by everyone. Not an easy list to master.
Additional heavy hitting stressors: getting into “a good” college, not letting people down, looking attractive, looking stylish, being thin, being really, really good at everything, keeping up with commitments, keeping up with expectations, and lastly: surviving it all to get a good job so they can work even more. for the rest of their lives.
The combination of way too much stress and too little time for healthy development drives the cutting epidemic. Cultivating good, solid, healthy coping behaviors requires time, support from others, and a new way of thinking about authentic and sustainable success.
In my next blog, I will clear up common misconceptions about cutting, while offering ways to support teens in creating better coping and healthier lifestyles. We’ll also catch up with Molly, who is doing extremely well today and has trouble believing she ever cut herself to feel better.