I Cut Once [How To Approach Teenage Cutting]
I used to cut. It felt good. It felt empowering. It felt like there was some area of my chaotic, messy life where I had control, where I was in charge. I made perfect lines – perfect red lines in a row on my arm. Lined up like little crimson soldiers ready to do battle, formed in blood.
My parents could see something was wrong, but they didn’t know how to help. They worried. They tried to “fix it.” They prayed. But they weren’t really sure what to do when it came to teenage cutting. I felt lost – filled with overwhelming emotions and no idea how to let any of those feelings and thoughts escape except through a little pain. This went on for years before I received professional help and began to find healthy ways to process feelings of anxiety, panic, and depression.
I would like to say my story is the exception. However, research shows that my experiences aren’t an anomaly.
Teenage Girl Sadness Is Rising
According to a survey published in the New York Times, up to 30% (or 1 in four) of teenage girls in some parts of the United States say they have intentionally injured themselves, often by burning or cutting. Yet another study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 57% of young girls reported feeling consistently hopeless or sad in 2021. This number is up from 36% in 2011 and accounts for the highest levels in the past decade.
After finding a counselor, my parents asked them, “How do I respond when…” fill in the blank. How do I respond when my daughter has no friends? How do I respond when my daughter is too sad to get out of bed? How do I respond when my daughter is violent? How do I respond when my daughter wakes up with angry red lines on her body?
While I wish I could give you a magic wand to wave over your loved one, a wand to heal all the ways this world has caused them pain, there is no simple answer to these questions. However, as someone who was that teenage girl addicted to cutting and now someone who is a parent of two beautiful human beings, I can share some things from both perspectives that I wish someone had shared with me.
1. Nothing is “wrong” with you.
When you’re battling overwhelming feelings of isolation, fear, and anxiety, it can feel like something is deeply wrong with you – like you are an anomaly. After all, something must be wrong with how you process life because everyone else seems to handle it in stride. Avoid making comments out of your own frustration or confusion, such as, “What’s wrong with you?” or “You’re acting crazy.” or “I just don’t know what to do with you.” All of these comments can reinforce the stigma that something is intrinsically wrong and cause further feelings of isolation, fear, and anxiety.
2. Practice Gratitude
Our minds are powerful. Our thoughts control our reality, and when we become trapped in negative thoughts, our entire reality reflects these changes. Unfortunately, our minds are also hardwired toward negativity. This is why your circumstances can never dictate your happiness. While gratitude may not come naturally, it is vital to exercise it regularly.
I am not talking about a fake Polly Anna sunshine. No, I am talking about an active task to exercise your gratitude meter. Just like we exercise our bodies, it’s essential to exercise your mind and train it to express gratitude and contentment. I encourage you to physically write down three things a day that bring you joy. Model this for your teenagers and encourage them to join you. While it may sound trivial, I can tell you firsthand the activity can change your life and greatly help your teenager’s mental state by lessening feelings of anxiety and depression and improving social bonds and physical health.
3. Be ready to listen
Sometimes, we just need someone to listen: no judgment, no comments, no helpful advice. Just listen. If your teenager or child wants to talk or makes a comment that you wish to respond to, first ask them, “Would you like me to offer advice, give an opinion, or just listen?” This simple question can change your conversation’s outcome and let your teenager know that you are here to support them in whatever ways they need.
4. Provide coping tools and intervene when needed.
Hurt people hurt people. Place hundreds of hurting people, each with their own hardships and life journeys, into a building and have them interact with each other every day. You now have a school environment. It’s easy (and natural) to want to rush in and save your child from hurtful comments, cyberbullying, physical bullying, clicks, and the list goes on and on. And in many situations, you need to step in and help.
However, giving your teenager (and child) the tools they need for resilience and strength is vital. Finding your center and balance from intrinsic sources and not from outside validation makes navigating the social realm of life more manageable. There are many helpful articles on encouraging resilience within your child. Navigating conflict and resolving conflict is difficult because conflict brings out big emotions, and big emotions initiate big actions.
When needed, always let your child know that you have their back. You are ready and there to intervene when the problems are too big and when life is too overwhelming.
5. Seek Perspective
As a parent, we often second-guess ourselves and what the right approach is for each situation. After all, our children didn’t come with a helpful “how-to” guide. When it comes to mental health struggles, it’s beneficial to seek perspective and advice when you are unsure how to proceed. Talking to a trusted friend, mentor, or mental health professional through a counselor can provide you with further insights and tools to best support your teenage daughter during this time.
Let’s Talk About It
Please know I am not a childhood psychologist or behavioral expert. I am simply sharing my story and the lessons I’ve learned through my own life’s journey. Being a teenage girl is challenging. Being a parent is also challenging. So let’s start dismantling the stigmas surrounding teenage mental health, depression, violence, and self-harm by talking about it. The team at Racing for Mental Health would love to hear your story. Please feel free to share advice, struggles, or insights in the comments. Let’s support each other through our life experiences and sharing our stories.