Understanding Teen “Cutting”

Sometimes troubled teens cut their own skin. They might inflict wounds on their arms, thighs, or calves, using broken disposable razor blades, the sharp parts of soda can tabs, or any other object sharp enough to draw a bit of blood. Most teens who start cutting do it in response to an urge that originates inside themselves. Cutting is not a fad, it isn’t about fitting into a group, and often it has little to do with any influence from their friends.

The cutting can become habitual, leading to clusters of little cuts on the body. But why do teens do it? What are they thinking? Are they just crazy?  Not at all. Cutting does reveal emotional trouble, but contrary to what you may have heard, cutters are as sane as anyone else — they’re just stuck in a difficult position and cutting is a strategy that helps them cope with that difficulty. The cutting habit has an interesting and somewhat complicated rationality behind it.

The most common and all-encompassing answer to the question, “Why do teens cut themselves?” is that they cut to stop emotional pain. The specific history, quality and intensity of the emotional pain varies from cutter to cutter, but in many cases, cutters have been abused or are still being abused, and cutting is the only way they have of coping with the pain caused by the abuse. In some cases, cutting is their only way of coping with other trauma, like the death of a loved one or severe bullying at school.

The emotional pain behind cutting is much stronger than the stress teens are typically prepared for. Cutting becomes a last resort for teens whose coping strategies have been overwhelmed by too much suffering. Sometimes for teens who cut, the emotional pain they feel grows so strong that it may as well be physical.

Cutting is not a suicide attempt. Most cutters are not suicidal at all. Rather, cutting is usually a way of translating unendurable emotional pain into physical pain. Not only does cutting give the pain a physical, solid embodiment which can then be quantified and thereby moved beyond, it also causes the body to respond to injury with a flood of endorphins, which creates a calm, subtle euphoria. Other teens, who feel numb and underwhelmed rather than overwhelmed, and who are having difficulty feeling anything at all, will cut themselves in order to prove that they can still feel — they’re trying to feel something rather than nothing.

Habitual cutting is not an “attention getting” strategy. The idea that teens cut themselves for attention or to manipulate other people is a myth. In fact, cutting is a “self-medication” or self-management strategy, and most teens who cut don’t want anyone at all to see their cuts and scars. They deliberately hide the scars with long sleeves and long trousers. Because the cause of the cutting, and thus the cutting itself, is a very private, sensitive, personal matter, they don’t want to show it off any more than they would want to show off their diary or their underwear drawer.

If you or your child know someone who is cutting, make it your top priority to let that person know that you really care. Don’t shame or judge the person, don’t make fun of the person, and don’t treat the person like a freak. Cutters don’t cut for attention, but sometimes paying attention can go a long way in helping a cutter grow strong and happy enough to kick the habit. Above all, if you want to help, become the good listener that the cutter can trust.

About Marion Witte

Marion Witte was born and raised on a farm on the prairies of North Dakota. It was there that she acquired her Midwestern work ethic and her philosophy of helping others. Marion enjoyed a successful career as an entrepreneur, and upon selling her various business interests she began pursuing a life of philanthropy. She is passionate and outspoken about the need for radical changes in the way we view children and parenting. Her memoir “Little Madhouse on the Prairie” relays the story of her life, and it is the basis of her commitment to this work. She founded and manages the Angel Heart Foundation and its sister organizations “Next Generation Parenting” and “Brave New Leaders.”

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