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Child Behavior: Kids and cutting



Top celebretities admit to cutting themselves

Before she died, Princess Diana demonstrated the scope of this disorder when she publically admitted that she cut herself during her unhappy marriage.

Self-harming behavior by one’s child is usually a frightening and confusing area of concern for parents. This behavior can range from the usually benign head-banging encountered in infancy, to the attention-getting injuries of middle childhood, to the severe and even life-threatening forms of self-mutilation found in adolescence.

This column will shed some light on an increasing problem in adolescence: “cutting.”

All the concomitant changes of adolescence create an environmental perfect storm for such problems as substance abuse, peer-related aggression, eating and mood disorders.

These problems have some direct or indirect aspect of self-abusive or self-destructive behavior. A direct form of adolescent self-destructive behavior, self-mutilation or “cutting” appears to be the most prevalent form of non-suicidal, self-injurious behavior.

Before she died, Princess Diana demonstrated the scope of this disorder when she publically admitted that she cut herself during her unhappy marriage. Johnny Depp also revealed that his arms bear scars from self-inflicted wounds.

Dr. Armando Farazzo, a professor of psychiatry and author of Bodies Under Siege, estimates that possibly 2 million or more Americans, mostly adolescents, engage in this behavior.

Because kids are growing up faster today, the trend has even established itself among middle schoolers. This deliberate destruction or alteration of one’s body, is what Marilee Strong, author of A Bright Red Scream, calls the current adolescent addiction.

Some adolescent cutters say that when they are overwhelmed with emotional distress, cutting temporally relieves their anguish. The use of physical pain to obscure the deeper more unbearable psychic pain seems to be a common pattern. For some, it is like a shot of adrenaline taking them out of their emptiness and making them feel alive. Frequently, the feelings produced by cutting take on addictive qualities and become habit forming.

Many adolescents who begin cutting report that they need to hurt themselves more severely and frequently to feel the same mood altering effect. 

Because they haven’t learned or mastered adaptive mature coping skills, cutting is often used as a mechanism to regulate emotions and cope with difficult issues. The most frequently cited reasons that adolescents say they cut are to stop bad feelings, to feel something and reduce the numbness even if it is painful. For some kids it can be a need for attention or a cry for help. Others report the act of cutting makes them feel in control, if only for those brief moments.

For both parents of adolescents and professionals who work with adolescents daily, it is important to detect this behavior early before it escalates, despite that fact that the adolescent might attempt to keep it concealed. The most important goal of intervention for this problem is to help the child identify the events or thoughts which precipitate the impulse to engage in cutting, be it stress or unpleasant events in their lives. Once they can identify the impulses to self-mutilate, they can use newly-learned alternatives and more adaptive mechanisms to cope.

Cutting for many kids can be a benign transitory rite of passage to fit into their peer group, or as a means to share “drama.” Whatever the reason, it is not something to ignore.

Paul Schwartz, PhD., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College.



Other articles by Paul Schwartz