Sandy’s mother, Lily, is beside herself. “I didn’t notice anything was wrong all winter,” she said. “Oh, she was quieter than usual and her grades weren’t the best. But we moved last fall and I figured she was just adjusting. Last week, though, spring really came on with 80-degree days and she insisted on wearing a wool sweater to school. Sandy got furious when I told her to go change. I’ve never seen her that upset! Three days of long sleeved shirts and I finally caught on. I’d heard about this, of course. But I never thought my daughter would be doing it. There are scars all up and down her arms!” Lily was doing her best to hold back tears. “Sandy wouldn’t come here with me. She won’t talk to me. What can I do?”
Lily is upset and bewildered. She can’t understand why her beautiful, accomplished 14-year-old would do something so self-destructive and painful. She feels terrible that her daughter is hurting herself. She feels terribly guilty that she didn’t notice something that has apparently been going on for months.
Sadly, Lily’s daughter is not alone. Self-harm has become far more common than most parents suspect. Some studies show that 2 to 3 million Americans engage in some form of self-injury (cutting, burning, or striking themselves to the point of soft tissue damage) each year. There are people who self-harm at every age, socio-economic, and ethnic group.
Why do kids do it? Often they learn from peers that it can be a way to actually feel better. They may then read about it on the Internet. Sometimes it starts as an experiment; sometimes as as a response to a dare. Sometimes a group of kids try it out as a way to be cool. Sometimes it really does begin with an accidental injury. And, rarely, it’s the result of a failed suicide attempt.
That last possibility especially terrifies parents. But kids who self-harm generally are not looking for a way to end life. They are actually looking for a way to end emotional pain, Some have found that hurting themselves brings their anxiety and stress down to a manageable level. Others, who have learned to dissociate (distance themselves from their bodies and minds) when under stress, find that the pain of inflicting injury brings them back in touch with themselves. Self-injury for these kids is a way to stay alive.
Contrary to what some adults believe, self-harming is rarely a bid for attention. Most of these kids are ashamed of what they do and do their best to hide it. Ironically, the energy needed to keep it a secret only adds another stress. Some are mentally ill and although some may suffer from depression, most do not. The most common mental health diagnosis for a teen who self-injures is borderline personality disorder. For kids who self-injure, hurting themselves has become a primary coping skill in the face of challenging feelings or situations. Often these kids have also learned that their feelings are wrong or bad. Often they never developed less drastic ways to deal with stress.
Self-harmers need to be understood, not scolded. They need to unlearn the idea that their feelings are “wrong” and learn that it’s okay to feel them. Most important, they need to learn new ways to manage stress and emotions that they find overwhelming.
When asked a few questions about Sandy’s history, Lily revealed that she left her husband last summer after years of verbal abuse. “From the time Sandy was little, he’d yell at her that she was too sensitive whenever she cried. He would threaten that he’d give her something to cry about if she didn’t stop. He never actually hit her but I never knew if maybe this time he would. It was hard enough for me to put up with his rages but after a while, I couldn’t stand watching what he was doing to our daughter. When a possibility for a transfer with a raise came about, I just packed us both up and left. Funny thing is, she misses her dad.”
Since Sandy won’t hear of coming to therapy, my job is to coach her mother. Lily needs to know that we can work as a team and that I don’t see her as a neglectful mom. Sandy has put a good face on the move and has even expressed how relieved she is to be out of all the family fighting. Meanwhile, Lily has been caught up with learning a new job and doing the thousand things that go with settling into a new town – from learning where to shop to finding a new doctor and dentist for them both. It’s no wonder to me that discovering that her daughter is cutting is a surprise and a shock. It often is.