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Extreme Behavior: When Children Cut Themselves

Extreme Behavior: When Children Cut Themselves

“Cutting is the new smoking among adolescents today.” Take a moment to consider this frightening concept and its possible ramifications. The clinical term for cutting is called “self-mutilation,” and it is more common than one may think. It is estimated that two million Americans deliberately cut or burn themselves each year. That statistic is nearly 30 times the rate of suicide attempts. Contrary to popular myth, self-mutilation rarely represents a suicidal attempt and is typically viewed by the individual as an act of nurturing or self-care. These individuals hurt themselves not really to inflict pain, but astonishingly enough, to relieve themselves of pain – to soothe themselves.

By definition, self-mutilation is the purposeful, intentional destruction of an individual’s own body tissue. It can include cutting, burning, bruising, inflicting more serious flesh wounds and even fracturing bones. One of the largest studies by Dr. Armando Favazza, highlighted in the book A Bright Red Scream, found the “typical” self-injurer to be a white female in her late 20′s who began hurting herself at age 14. More than half of the subjects selected for the study chose the word “miserable” to describe their childhoods. Child abuse was reported by 62%; sexual abuse by nearly half. They most commonly described themselves as feeling empty inside, unable to express emotions in words, afraid of getting close to anyone, and wanting desperately to stop the emotional pain.

Abused and neglected children never learn from their parents how to soothe themselves and cannot trust others to help them do so. They may turn to cutting as a means of “self-mothering.” Other research has confirmed that a single, secure attachment bond with a parent or primary caregiver is the most powerful protection against trauma. Turning the blame back on themselves is the hallmark of self-mutilators; they feel they are bad and evil to the core.

One of the most challenging questions is why so many self-injurers feel no pain when they cut, burn, or break bones. When a person cuts him/herself, there is a release of chemicals called beta-endorphins found in the central and peripheral nervous systems. These provide analgesic and addictive effects similar to that of morphine and codeine. This is the body’s natural response to physical trauma.

What are the benefits of cutting in the mind of the child or adult? There are several. First, dissociation or distraction is the number one reason one might repeat this behavior. Engaging in self-abuse allows an individual to avoid emotional pain. In the long run, however, it does not alleviate the emotional pain; it simply distracts from it. If cutting really worked, one cut would be enough to resolve the pain. Most self-injurers feel no pain and are generally oblivious to their surroundings. Some are not even aware of the act itself and are shocked to later discover their wounds. Either the pain of cutting or the sight or sensation of flowing blood – or both – snaps them back into normal consciousness. After cutting, they feel calm, “real” again and often fall into restful sleep. It has been described as “moving from a place of passive helplessness to active control.”

Keep in mind, there are varying degrees of self-mutilation and psychiatric illness often associated with this behavior. Some more “healthy” teens, for example, may exhibit “copycat cutting”. This is exclusive to adolescent girls who experiment with cutting when they observe more popular girls, who may already have a psychiatric illness, participating in this behavior. The vast majority of self-abusers stop in their late teens or early 20′s. They start thinking of the future, having children, etc. These are people with less severe pathology.

There is no single therapeutic approach that works for all self-injurers. Bottom line – the underlying trauma must be resolved. Some recommended treatment options include symptom substitution, an alternative approach to punishing one’s self without producing bodily harm; cognitive-behavioral therapy; expressive therapies like writing, drawing, and role-playing to access the dissociated memories at the core of self-injury. Twelve-step Self Mutilators Anonymous Groups are also available in the community. The combined use of therapy and medication may yield the best results. Learning how to modulate one’s emotional and behavioral states is the key to psychological growth.

Spiritual application is critical to healing. Everyone longs for approval and acceptance. Call to mind what was stated previously…self-blame is the hallmark of self-injurers. In Romans 8:1, the apostle Paul declares, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Since all are guilty of sin, whether that sin was of one’s own volition or perpetrated by another, it is impossible to cleanse oneself of this sin without looking to the cross. God can accept any sinner through Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. God’s approval is all the approval one needs.

If you or someone you know is experimenting with cutting or some other form of self-injurious behavior, it is recommended that you seek help immediately. Never assume that cutting will not cause irreversible harm to oneself or even death, or that this is “just a phase.” The counselors at Sheridan House are trained to evaluate individuals and determine a plan of action, whether it is outpatient counseling and/or a referral to a specialized physician. For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact Sheridan House Counseling Center at (954) 880-9038.