by Taylor Hemness
Sarah says that the first time she cut herself, her mother was out of town. When Sarah called and told her about it, her mother broke into tears. Five years later, after several failed efforts to stop her daughter's destructive habit, including making her check out razors to shave her legs, Sarah's mom has almost given up.
"My mom will see it, and ask when did that happen," Sarah says. "Then she'll see another one and ask if that's how it happened. But she doesn't really do anything about it now.
Professional counselor Dr. Debra Burton says that it's common for parents to have trouble coming to terms with such a frightening habit.
"It's difficult because it's scary, when your child is inflicting wounds upon themselves. But I think if the parent can really focus on the fact that there's a problem, and that my child is overwhelmed with emotion and they're not able to cope with it right now. They're turning to a maladaptive behavior, and we need to get this taken care of."
Teenagers who cut are often secretive about their habit, and will most likely deny it if an accusation is made. But there are warning signs to look for if you think your child might be cutting.
Monitor your child's time in the bathroom or bedroom. If they are alone for extended periods of time, they could be cutting. Keep a close eye on your child's laundry. If they do it themselves, or suddenly offer to, there might be a problem. And, watch what your child wears. Cutters will usually wear long sleeves and pants on a regular basis, to cover the scars or fresh wounds on their arms or legs.
If you do find that your child is cutting, experts say it's important to try and treat the source of your child's depression or anger, not just to prevent the cutting. If you simply stop the cutting, the consequences could be disastrous.
"If that's your emotional state, and that's how you deal with or have learned how to deal with emotions that way, you may pick another coping mechanism that's just as negative," explains Kenneth Placke at the Burke Center.
Sarah says that after going more than a month without cutting herself, she feels she's doing better, and that she's scared to start again. Dr. Burton says for the teenagers who are able to get past their cutting habit, a bright and happy future is still possible.
"Oh, there's incredible hope here. This is a behavior that once it's diagnosed, once it comes out of the dark, then you can really help them to learn how to cope with emotions. They're just doing it to try to cope ineffectively, and you teach them how to cope with emotions effectively."