A few months ago my daughter told me about two girls in her class who were cutting themselves.
I'd heard of this practice of self-harm, but I never imagined it would be part of my twelve-year-old daughter's world. This was something that happened in other places, far away, to kids who were very, very disturbed. I imagined these disturbed cutters were easy to spot—they dressed in black, look unkempt and blurted out crazy things. They were sullen and angry.
This just goes to show that I knew nothing about cutting. The young teens engaging in this practice in my daughter's class? The sweetest girls in the school. They were really smart, polite and good at everything they did. They were athletes, scholars and members of student council. They were well liked by everyone. They were girls I would be proud to have my daughter call friends.
Maybe they were a little too perfect.
So why do they do it?
I tried to remember my days as a teenager. I don't remember anyone cutting themselves. I didn't even know the term. Have times changed so much? I don't know. There were always kids who had problems—there were always a few girls with bulimia or anorexia; there was another girl in class who read journal entries to classmates about wanting to commit suicide. Looking back, there was a girl who wore long sleeves even on the hottest days.
Could she have been a cutter and we just didn't know about it then?
I did some research on why teenagers—mostly teenage girls, but boys do it too—cut themselves. When someone cuts themselves (usually their arms and legs with a razor, knife, even a finger nail, anything with a sharp edge), the brain releases endorphins that help the body relax. This practice calms down someone who is experiencing a lot of anxiety and stress. Because this feeling is pleasurable, the practice of cutting quickly becomes addictive. It is hard for these kids to stop without getting professional help.
Perhaps the reason why the practice is so widespread is its presence on the internet. If you go on YouTube, dozens of videos pop up showing people cutting themselves. There are chat rooms and websites devoted to this practice. If a friend tries it, she might entice another friend to try it too. Teens who cut themselves are more likely to have friends who cut themselves.
This is just another thing for parents to worry about. Hopefully, we have children who will come to us with their problems before they get out of hand. Hopefully, we'll be smart enough to see the signs. But sometimes even the best parent-child relationship goes through some turbulence during those stormy teenage years. And sometimes even the best parents miss the signs.
So what to do? Look for warning signs. Is your child disengaged from family and friends? Does your child spend too much time alone in their room with the door shut? Does your child seem depressed? Is your child covering up their arms and legs even in hot weather? Does your child make too many excuses for cuts and scratches?
Those are some of the warning signs. Hopefully none of us will have to deal with this.