Girls in our culture today suffer from a variety of very dangerous maladies including depression, poor self-image, and eating disorders to name a few. One issue that catches many parents off guard is the phenomena of self-harm, such as cutting. Since fathers are a strong key to a young woman’s self-image and self-esteem, this is an issue dads should be aware of and prepared to take action against.
Cutting is a form of self-harm where a person (typically an adolescent girl) cuts their skin as a way to cope with the pain of strong emotions, intense pressure, or upsetting relationship problems. Reportedly, the act of cutting the skin until it bleeds releases endorphins that make the person feel better. Cutting is not a suicide attempt but is a coping strategy to alleviate emotional pain and trauma. Cutting is often performed with a razor blade or knife and is kept secret, usually done on the arms, legs, or torso—areas that are easily covered with clothing. The problem is particularly common among young girls ages nine to fourteen. Between 13 percent and 23 percent of US teens have reported intentional self-injury.
In the novel Suspect, here’s how one woman described the peace and calm she felt after cutting herself: “I had found something I could control . . . I could decide how many times I cut, how deep I would go. I liked the pain. I craved the pain. I deserved it.”
Kids who self-harm often have other issues. They may have experienced others traumas in their life. Dr. Wendy Lader, clinical director for SAFE Alternatives, says, “They may have a history of sexual, physical, or verbal abuse. Many are sensitive, perfectionists, overachievers. The self-injury begins as a defense against what’s going on in their family, in their lives. They have failed in one area of their lives, so this is a way to get control.”
What to Watch For:
David Rosen, MD, provides clues that self-harm is occurring:
Small, linear cuts. “The most typical cuts are very linear, straight line, often parallel like railroad ties carved into forearm, the upper arm, sometimes the legs. Some people cut words into themselves. If they’re having body image issues, they may cut the word ‘fat.’ If they’re having trouble at school, it may be ‘stupid,’ ‘loser,’ ‘failure,’ or a big ‘L.’ Those are the things we see pretty regularly.”
Unexplained cuts and scratches, particularly when they appear regularly. “I wish I had a nickel for every time someone says, ‘The cat did it,’” says Rosen. Mood changes like depression or anxiety, out-of-control behavior, changes in relationships communication, and school performance. Kids who are unable to manage day-to-day stresses of life are vulnerable to cutting.
For many kids, cutting is the result of a repressive home environment, where negative emotions are swept under the carpet, where feelings aren’t discussed. It’s a myth that this behavior is simply an attention-getter. Lader says, “There’s a [painkiller] effect that these kids get from self-harm. When they are in emotional pain, they literally won’t feel that pain as much when they do this to themselves.”
Some kids who self-injure are just regular kids going through the adolescent struggle for self-identity. They’re experimenting. My daughter went through a short period of time where the group she hung around with was cutting (we learned this from her school counselor). While I have no proof, I suspect she also experimented with this in order to be part of the group. We had several difficult discussions about this issue in which she denied participating. But my wife and I remained vigilant about looking for signs of this behavior and continued to talk with her about it. The thing I remember most about the experience is my feeling of helplessness and abject fear. I could protect her from bad people, but how could I protect her from internal “demons” that might tempt her to harm herself?
A new form of extreme self-harm has arisen called “self-embedding.” Self-embedding is where a person (typically an adolescent female) inserts objects made of glass, wood, metal, or other materials under their skin.
What should you do if you suspect your daughter is cutting? First of all, do not panic or become hysterical (and don’t let your wife either). Talk to your daughter openly but calmly about this issue. If this is an ongoing problem and not just a form of peer experimentation she may need immediate professional help. If not dealt with effectively, this issue can escalate and become serious and even life-threatening. Again, guys, don’t wait and hope this issue will go away by itself. Even though it may be frightening, you must provide the leadership to help protect your daughter from this dangerous activity.
Excerpted from Rick’s book, That’s My Girl: How a Father’s Love Protects and Empowers His Daughter, Revell Publishing, 2012.