How to Parent a Teen Who Cuts

Girl-sad-head

As parents, we want the best for our children. We want them to be happy, successful, and responsible. If one of our children is suffering or struggling, it can be hard on us too.

How we cope with our children’s problems or symptoms is just as important as how they cope. Speaking from experience, I know the more angry or worried I am about my child, the more I get in the way of them resolving their issue. The more responsible I feel for solving their problem, the more they don’t have to.

While my children are still fairly young, I have worked with many teens and families where a teen has used cutting to cope with life problems. I have observed how hard it is to sit next to a struggling child without feeling responsible for their problem, especially when cutting is involved. The best way to be there for your child is to manage your own emotions about their problem.

Why do Teens Cut?

It can be hard to relate to a teen who cuts, so most people put more pressure on the teen to stop cutting. To me, it’s similar to telling someone to stop overeating, shopping, or smoking when they are upset. You focus on getting the other person to stop the behavior, so you don’t have to worry so much about them.

Cutting to cope is usually not an attempt to end one’s life. The teen may also experience suicidal thoughts but the cutting is rarely a suicide attempt. Depending on what the teen uses to cut, there is the risk of accidentally cutting too deep or leaving a scar. More often the cuts are superficial scratches that will heal.

Cutting isn’t just something teens do, some adults also cut to find comfort. I imagine we can all relate to at least one of the reasons teens cut. Some reasons teens say they cut themselves are:

  • To distract from emotional pain
  • To relieve tension
  • To brand or “tattoo”
  • To punish themselves
  • To feel in control of something

How Do You Parent a Teen Who Cuts?  

Most teens that cut are experiencing some emotional isolation from their parents and/or peer group. Meaning they don’t feel like they can be themselves or let someone get to know them.

When parents get worried or upset with their child, they put more pressure on their child to be different. Even the most well-intentioned, caring parents can help isolate a teen more. If your teen opens up and you diagnose their problem or tell them how to cope better, then they will probably keep to themselves more.

You aren’t responsible for how connected your child is with others, just how you interact with your child. So how do you parent your teen through tough times without taking responsibility for solving their problems? Here are 3 ways to parent when a teen cuts:

1. Think about Cutting More Objectively – Cutting doesn’t mean your child is sick or needs medication. It is one of the ways they are coping with life challenges.

2. Listen More Than Preach – Think about what it’s like for your teen to approach you with a problem. Are you quick to give them advice? Or angry at how they are behaving?

3. Let Teen Be Responsible for Eliminating Cutting Behavior – Of course you don’t want your teen to hurt themselves, but first try to understand what it means to them. Be curious about whether or not they want to find other ways to cope rather than cut.

No matter how hard it is to see our child struggle, we are not responsible for their happiness. How we think about our child’s struggles has an impact on how we interact with our kids. If we think our child is sick, chemically imbalanced, fragile, or wrong, then we will interact accordingly.

On the other hand, learning how to sit next to a hurting teen gives them at least one calm person who believes in them. It’s hard to hold still and be emotionally present when we too are worried that they aren’t well. Finding a new way to think about your teen’s problem will help you better understand and reassure them.

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I often meet with parents, even when teens don’t want professional help. Interested in parent coaching? Click here for more information.

(Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only and should not replace consultation with qualified mental health professional. If at any time, you think your child’s self harming behavior is an attempt to end their life, please seek immediate medical or professional help.)

Photo Credit: D. Sharon Pruitt

2 responses to “How to Parent a Teen Who Cuts

  1. Hi Marci,

    Thank you for sharing some great tips in your post. As the Dean of Students at a College Preparatory high school, I meet with students involved in cutting on a regular basis. Educating parents is key in addressing this cry for help. It’s not just about emotional release; it affects both genders and there are avenues for escape and finding positive releases.

  2. Reblogged this on Deciphering teens and commented:
    These are great tips for understanding why your child cuts and how you can help them move past this emotional release.