A Parent’s View of Cutting

by Tom Hames

When I was in high school, if one of my friends was ‘cutting’ it meant they were skipping class. Today, the term can refer to something else completely. Cutting is a form of self-injury where a person takes a sharp object such as a knife, razor blade, pen or even a paper clip and cuts into their skin. It seems to be more prevalent among teenage girls, but boys do it too.

Although I do not claim to fully understand cutting, I can relate to it because of something that happened to me when I was in my early twenties. I was stocking the shelves in my dad’s wholesale grocery store and I had a wooden roll-around cart assigned to me that was just the right height to put boxes on so they could be cut open. One day, as I was pushing my cart down one of the aisles, I was suddenly overcome with the desire to hurt myself. It was a strange sensation, but to be honest, I thought about cutting myself. I used a razor knife every day, and I had one right in front of me, but I didn’t want to get blood on everything. The feeling to hurt myself persisted, and I got to the point where I had to do something. Finally, looking around to make sure that no one would see me, I raised my hand up over my head and slammed it down on the top of the wooden cart as hard as I could, knuckles first. Then, I did it again.

Oddly enough, despite the pain, I actually felt better inside. About that same time, I became fascinated with drawing skulls. I drew them in secret and then threw them away almost immediately. A daily routine took shape and for the better part of four months ─ I would spend my workday stocking shelves, drawing skulls, throwing them away and then slamming my hand down on the cart. It was a weird ritual, but one that I found gave me great comfort. Why I never broke any bones in my hand I will never know. When I stopped working for my dad to finish college, my personal form of self-injury stopped as well. What is strange to me is that I never did it anywhere but at work, and once I left I never did it again.

I don’t know how to make sense of what I just wrote, but I know it happened. Honestly, it is embarrassing to share that part of my life, but lately I have been extremely grieved over the issue of cutting, and if sharing my experience helps someone else, then I will gladly overcome my embarrassment. Unfortunately, most cases of self-injury are not short-lived like mine. Many continue for years, even into adulthood.

So, what causes teenagers to cut themselves? I’ve read a lot of articles on this subject, and the experts believe that it is a coping mechanism. If a teenager is dealing with a really intense emotion it can help them deaden the intensity. On the other hand, for those feeling a sense of numbness, it can perform the opposite way and actually help them feel something. They say it can also indicate that there are other issues involved, such as depression. Other experts say it is a control issue, that teenagers sometimes feel so out of control with their life that they cut themselves just so they can have control over something.

I will leave all of the causes up to the experts. As a parent who has raised three teenagers, and as someone who has spent a number of years working with youth, I would like to know how to deal with it. Although I do not claim to have all of the answers, in my personal, non-professional, opinion, acceptance, and communication are the keys to helping a teenager with this problem.

It is understandable for adults to be appalled at the thought of their child self-injuring. What parent wouldn’t be shocked to find out that the cuts on their daughter’s skin were self -inflicted? This is where parents need to be very careful. If the teenager has trusted enough to open up, reacting with shock and disbelief may shut them back out. It is in this critical moment that a parent needs to be as understanding as possible and accept the child along with their injuries. It is even more important if the self-injury was found out by other means. In this case, the teenager may not be willing to talk about it at all.

Communication is equally, if not more important, than acceptance. As parents, we often want to solve our children’s problems immediately.  But before rushing your child to the psychiatrist or emergency room, try communicating with them first. Listen to them, speak calmly and don’t judge them. It may be difficult, but we have to foster open communication if we ever hope to help them. It is at times like this that our children really need caring and nurturing, not chastising and nagging.

If you are a parent or you know someone who is dealing with cutting, or any form of self-injury, then please try to accept them for who they are, and take the time to communicate with them. Don’t be offended by what they have done, or make negative comments about their injuries. They need supportive people around them who will listen to them and not judge them for what they are doing to their bodies. They desperately need someone they can trust to help them through it. Professional help may need to take place, but simply being there for them will make a big difference.


Last 5 posts by Tom Hames