Editor's note: We have concealed some identifying details about this teen to protect her privacy. But at its heart and soul, this post reflects the first-hand account of a parent helping a child deal with self-injury.
I was at the school dropping off some volunteer paperwork when my daughter's teacher met me in the hallway and asked if she could speak to me privately. She told me she had seen some unusual marks on my daughter's arm, and she thought they might be self-inflicted.
"Well, she is very stressed out about that math test today," I offered. I had seen my daughter dig her fingernails into her skin before when she was very nervous or upset, and while I had been meaning to talk to her about it, I didn't really worry that it was anything more than a nervous habit like fingernail picking or biting.
Her teacher proceeded to talk to me about self-harm and the various places I should be checking on my daughter's body (like her stomach, ankles, inner thighs) for other strange marks as well as the different options I had for getting her help.
Self-harm? OK, I thought, digging your nails into your skin is not the healthiest method for dealing with stress but let's not get crazy here.
Still, when my daughter came home from school that day, I noticed she was wearing a light, long-sleeved sweater over her tank top, even though it was warm enough to go without. We chatted about her day and her math test, and I was relieved to hear that she sounded calm, cool and collected.
It was such a beautiful day that we decided to take a walk around the neighborhood, and at one point along our walk, I asked if I could take her picture in front of some particularly beautiful blooming flowers. She agreed, and when I asked if she would ditch the sweater so I could see the pretty tank top in the photo, she agreed to that, too. Then, in one fluid and seamless motion, she removed her sweater and stood smiling — her head high and her arms behind her back.
That’s when my heart bottomed-out into my stomach.
She was clearly hiding her arms from me. And she was doing it in such an easy, practiced manner that I knew this wasn't the first time. Still, when I asked her if I could see her arms, I expected to see scratch marks or fingernail impressions. What I did not expect to see were dozens — dozens! — of thin, parallel cuts lining the inside of her arm, from her wrist to her elbow.
My daughter was cutting.
Cutting is more common than most parents realize
Statistics show that more than 20 percent of females in the U.S. admit to trying some method of self-harm. For males, it’s closer to 15 percent. In most cases, self-injury begins around the age of 14 and continues into the 20s, or even indefinitely for those who do not get help.
According to Jared Pogue, a teen counselor with Restoration Counseling of Atlanta, cutting and other forms of self-injury, including burning, bruising and skin picking, are a stress response that some kids turn to when they experience overwhelming feelings of anger, frustration, or sadness. In other words, kids cut as a means to control their pain when their emotions feel out of their control.
If you're reading this and thinking there's no way your kid could be cutting, let me just tell you from experience that this is the kind of thing that many parents never see coming. Many kids who cut are good at hiding both their marks and their feelings. They are often described by their peers as happy, hard-working and easygoing. But inside, these kids might be dealing with emotional turmoil that they're simply not equipped to handle.
What are the signs?
So what should you do if you suspect your child might be cutting? According to Pogue, the quickest way to spot cutting is to look for things such as seasonally inappropriate clothing (i.e., long sleeves in summer) and kids who consistently walk with their palms facing downward.
Teen Life Coach Sheri Gazitt from Teen Wise Seattle has some advice for parents who learn that their child might be injuring themselves. "Take a deep breath before saying anything," said Gazitt. "In fact, you might want to wait until you've had time to get your emotions in check and even practice what you are going to say."
As a parent, you're going to feel everything from sadness to fear to anger to learn that your child is purposefully hurting herself, but as Gazitt advises, when talking with teens about self-harm, now is the time that they need you to be their emotional rock.
"When teens are doing something that they know is not a good healthy choice, one of their biggest concerns is that they will get in trouble if they are caught," said Gazitt. "They are also embarrassed or afraid you will be disappointed in them. First and foremost, assure your teen that you are not mad at them and that you love them. You just want to make sure that they find healthier ways to cope."
Your first plan of action after talking with your child should be a check in with a mental health professional who specializes in adolescent care. You will be relieved to know that self-injury is not generally associated with suicidal thoughts and tendencies as health care providers once thought. But it’s important to explore if there any deeper behavioral issues such as anxiety disorders or depression that may need to be addressed.
You may also be tempted to try to remove all sharp objects from your home. I immediately took the crafting knife that my daughter had used to cut herself out of her room. But as I quickly learned, there’s no end to the number of objects (sewing needles, scissors, paper clips and even their own fingernails,) that kids can use to harm themselves if that’s their aim.
Finally, parents need to know that there is no quick fix to help kids who are self-harming.
"Cutting for some may disappear once being caught, but for many is like an addiction," said Pogue. "Parents should realize that it is going to take time and they have to bring patience with them during this journey. Tears, hugs and words of loving wisdom should be the soup du jour."
March 1 is Self-Injury Awareness Day. On this day, you can wear an orange shirt or ribbon to support those who have experienced self-injury. But more importantly, you can take a look around at the kids in your own life — even and especially those kids that you would never suspect — and look for signs of self-harm.
And if you do suspect a problem, take a deep breath. And start listening.