Molly is a high-performing 16-year-old teen girl in her junior year of high school. She has a nice group of friends, works hard in school and gets excellent grades. Molly also has multiple activities she admits she doesn’t really enjoy anymore but feels are necessary to “get into a good college."
Molly remembers a time when she enjoyed both school and her activities, but is far too burned out now to enjoy either.
What most people don’t know about Molly is that she sometimes cuts herself, in the privacy of her bedroom or bathroom, “just to feel relief or sometimes, just to feel something."
“It started as an impulse. Of course I know a lot of girls who cut so the idea came to me and I started with a paper clip. I ran it along the inside of my arm until it made a mark. Then I went deeper until I made myself bleed. It was totally engrossing and I can’t explain why but it made me feel better. I graduated to straight edge razors and, at the time, it seemed perfectly fine to me. It was a little secret compartment of my life where I had all the power and control.”
Molly’s mom saw the cuts when she walked into the bathroom as Molly got out of the shower one day. Scars and partially healed lines marked Molly’s abdomen and upper thighs. Understandably, Molly’s mom was alarmed and confronted Molly.
“It’s a sickening moment when it hits you. You have a child and you love that child and you just don’t think she’ll grow up to purposely hurt and scar herself. Fear and anger and confusion all blew up inside of me and I regret the way I handled it.”
Molly was enraged to have her secret revealed. She was also overwhelmed by the experience of seeing the cutting from her mom’s point of view. She felt her mom did not understand at all. To make matters worse, her mom began watching her nervously. Followup conversations were awkward. Frustrated and concerned, Molly’s mom soon connected Molly to therapy.
The idea of cutting oneself, on purpose, to feel better is a mindblower for parents. At one of my parent education talks, a mom asked about cutting and one of the dads in the audience assumed we were talking about “cutting class." His jaw dropped when it was explained to him.
Of course, we knew kids who made poor coping choices when we were teens and made a few ourselves. The low hanging fruit of the Coping Tree includes self-medication with drugs and alcohol, shoplifting, reckless driving, high-risk sex, and other non-beneficial activities that “fix” feelings while putting the teen at risk.
But teens who secretly cut themselves as a way to express, control and witness their emotional pain? Jaws drop.
While self-harming is not a new phenomenon, this particular offshoot is showing a disturbing rise in popularity. Accurate statistics are hard get but if you ask a professional who works with teen girls (therapists, counselors, teachers, coaches); you are likely to hear it is becoming more and more common.
Cutting has a contagious element and therefore spreads in stressful environments that contain greater numbers of vulnerable subjects. Eager to please, overly stressed teen girls are at risk.
Many girls share that they are sickened yet fascinated when they first hear of cutting. From there, the information is stored on a shelf in their consciousness. It is an option.
Depending on factors including stress level, stress sensitivity, emotional development, emotional support and overall lifestyle health and balance, a teen girl either will or won’t explore cutting herself.
Cutting is a coping mechanismm which means it is a way to regulate feelings. Unfortunately, it “works” in that teens report it makes them feel better. They like that they can control it, keep it secret, see and feel a “result," and express emotions people don’t seem to like, especially anger and sadness.
To make things worse, the brain wires quickly for this behavior, creating a stress + cutting = relief circuit that becomes harder and harder to break over time.
Ideally, teens employ healthier coping strategies when under stress. For example, a stressed teen might exercise, talk with friends, take a nap, have a good cry, or write in a journal to relieve stress.
Instead, cutting and other low ranking coping strategies are hastily adopted because our teens have no time, support, or creativity to develop better coping mechanisms.
It’s important to think of cutting as a symptom, which means it is secondary to a core problem. The core problem is that fewer teens have an opportunity to experience full and healthy development in a reasonably (not overwhelmingly) challenging environment.
Externally, our teens are under too much pressure. Internally, our teens lack sufficient emotional development to help them cope with it.
External stressors are numerous, varied and interrelated. Teen girls today experience much more stress than what was common in their parents’ generation. Much more than boys, girls put themselves under extraordinary pressure to be super smart, super attractive, and super well-liked (preferably adored) by everyone. Not an easy list to master.
Additional heavy hitting stressors: getting into “a good” college, not letting people down, looking attractive, looking stylish, being thin, being really, really good at everything, keeping up with commitments, keeping up with expectations, and lastly: surviving it all to get a good job so they can work even more...for the rest of their lives.
The combination of way too much stress and too little time for healthy development drives the cutting epidemic. Cultivating good, solid, healthy coping behaviors requires time, support from others, and a new way of thinking about authentic and sustainable success.
In my next blog, I will clear up common misconceptions about cutting, while offering ways to support teens in creating better coping and healthier lifestyles. We’ll also catch up with Molly, who is doing extremely well today and has trouble believing she ever cut herself to feel better.