Your beautiful young daughter has scarred her arms and legs with instruments of torture: razors, glass, pencil erasers — anything that can cut or burn skin. The more marks appear, the more you feel desperate to stop her from hurting herself. You ransack her room and confiscate razor blades. You lecture, bribe and cry. Nothing you do or say helps, and all of your attempts to help her just seem to lead to more cutting. You’re terrified that one day she will cut too deep and you will have lost her forever.
You don’t understand why she cuts. She doesn’t seem bothered by the scars or the blood — the same signs of damage you can hardly bear to look at. More and more, your life seems to revolve around her self-injury. Will she cut today? Did she sneak razors back into her room? Isn’t there something you can do — something you haven’t yet thought of — to stop her from what could one day kill her?
Why Girls Self-Injure
Girls are more likely to cut than boys. Although focusing on why this is won’t get your daughter to stop cutting, it does help to understand the role self-injury plays in your daughter’s life.
Self-injurers are generally not attempting suicide: They’re using a maladaptive coping skill. Girls who have trouble regulating their emotions sometimes turn to cutting as an effective, though unhealthy means of managing feelings that overwhelm them. Similar to an eating disorder, which is often a comorbid condition, cutting can be conceptualized as an addiction.
The more girls self-injure, the more they become habituated to this practice, which alters brain chemistry. Some cutters report that cutting helps them feel or express feelings that they can’t access or communicate otherwise. Others say that cutting numbs their feelings, a process therapists refer to as disassociation.
But the reason really doesn’t matter. What matters is finding ways to help your daughter, your family and you.
Ways To Help Those Who Self-Injure
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy For Self-Injury
Developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan, PhD, ABPP, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) combines cognitive behavior skills with mindfulness. This technique embraces two seemingly contradictory truths: You’re fine the way you are AND you need to change your behavior.
Because parents tend to get locked into power struggles with their self-injuring teens, practicing DBT is a good way to remove judgment and control. Instead of trying to get your teenager to stop her behavior, first acknowledge her feelings and then set a limit.
For example, say “I see you’re really upset that I’ve restricted you from Facebook, AND it’s not okay that you hurt yourself.” Using the word “and” instead of “but” goes a long way towards removing judgment and blame.
Seek out therapists in your area who are trained in DBT. Individual, group and family therapy can provide support to cutters and those who love them.
Inpatient Facilities For Self-Injurers
If the cutting is severe or occurs at school, you may have to hospitalize your daughter and consider enrolling her at inpatient facility if she’s released. Many facilities specialize in the treatment of self-injury and other comorbid conditions. They provide crisis management and keep your daughter safe until she acquires enough coping tools to return home and segue to outpatient therapy.
Mindfulness And Self-Care For Families Of Self-Injurers
As with families of drug addicts, families of cutters tend to orient themselves around the cutter’s behavior. Besides being unproductive, obsessing over and trying to control the cutting saps your energy and keeps you from focusing on other things in your life that need tending to, too — your job, marriage, friends and other children, for example.
Need support? Go to therapy. Join a support group. Even a 12-step program such as Al-Anon, while not specifically addressing self-injury, can help you learn to release yourself from the burden of trying to change someone who isn’t ready to change.
A mindfulness practice can help you manage your own feelings by simply being aware of your thoughts while detaching from the outcome. You can’t stop your daughter from cutting, but you can choose to change your own thoughts, feelings and behavior.
By Virginia Gilbert, MFT
Follow Virginia on Twitter at @VGilbertMFT