It usually is what we call "cutting", or intentionally using a sharp object to, well, cut one's self. The results are obvious, but the reasons are not. Always take it seriously, and seek medical attention if needed, but it is far from hopeless even if your kid feels hopeless himself.
While there may not be headlines on cutting right now, it's prevalent. Statistics can be hard to come by as most incidents of cutting are not reported, but over two million emergency room visits a year are due to self-injury. More than 15% of teens cut themselves, and more than half of them are women. While 15% may sound like a small number, it's a hair under one in seven. Think of your kids, just one of them, and see if you can name six of their friends. That's seven. You pick one. Yeah, it's a big deal.
So, now that we know that it's a huge deal and it certain does impact people that you know and love, it's time to understand why people would want to do such a thing. Attention? Maybe, but there are much less painful methods of getting attention. Ultimately, it's about control. The cuts are physical representations of real emotional pain. Typically emotional pain isn't something that we ask for, unless we intentionally watch the aforementioned Miley Cyrus and her VMA performance, so we don't control it. Teenagers are just starting to both get and identify these pains, so they are going to want to control it and express it as best as they can.
When someone uses a blade, the power to hurt, whether it's an accident (hence why I am not allowed to cut vegetables in the kitchen without my wife's supervision) or intentionally, is ours to wield. Everything from the intensity of the pain to the depth and length of the cut to how long it hurts to how frequently it happens is under that person's control, and this can be very appealing. We know that teenagers are bombarded with messages that tell them that their value is represented by how they look or how many points that they can score in a game, so cutting provides visual feedback as to their pain, too. It can almost be a badge of honor or a scoreboard of scars on their skin. While it may sound morbid, it makes sense.
Is it a cry for attention? Maybe, but probably not as frequently as you think. A lot of cuts can be out of sight, like on the upper part of the leg, so you may never see them at all. Can't do it for attention if you know that nobody will see it. The stereotypical place to cut is the easiest, which is on the arm or wrist. It goes without saying that these need medical attention just as any other wound would. If you can see it, the you can ask your child about it. Don't hound or nag about it, unless of course you feel that it's a matter that needs immediate medical care, as noticing and acknowledging it is enough. Look for other signs of a teen being unhappy such as isolating herself/himself from friends, breaking up with a girlfriend/boyfriend, slipping grades, irritability, and just your intuition that something is wrong, and then make yourself available. No matter the response that you get, at least your kid now knows that you're there.
You can also look for signs of something being wrong by what clothes your kid is wearing. No, I'm not talking about Marilyn Manson shirts or what's actually ON the clothing; I'm talking about clothes that are inappropriate for the weather, such as long sleeves when it's 90 degrees out or suddenly wearing pants when he'd usually wear shorts. Of course this doesn't automatically mean cutting, so look for more signs like I mentioned above. In cases that aren't immediate emergencies, contact me and we can talk about it and even set a time to meet. Remember, cutting is a symptom, not the ultimate and entire issue.
No matter what, the most important thing that you can do is be there for your child. Knowing that there's a difference between being available and being a helicopter parent is critical. Remember, one of the main reasons that cutting happens is because a person can feel like he's not in control of his life and wants to assert some kind of power over his situation or emotions, so if you barge in and make this yet another issue that he doesn't have any input in, then you're going to see it come out somewhere else. If your child can get a release through talking with you, then he'll have much less reason to cut.
Of course every situation is different, and it can be really hard to tell the difference between normal teenage behavior and actual self-harm. If you suspect it may be something either going on or can happen, or especially if you see it, then get in touch with me. Watching your child hurt is the worst thing in the world, and knowing that your child is doing it to himself is the worst version of that.
No matter what, always know:
Nobody said that it would be easy, but nobody said that you had to do it alone.