Cutting and Self-Harm: Warning Signs and Treatment
Parents should watch for symptoms and encourage kids to get help.
Blunting Emotional Pain
Psychiatrists believe that, for kids with emotional problems, self-injury
has an effect similar to cocaine and other drugs that release endorphins to
create a feel-good feeling.
"Yet self-harm is different from taking drugs," Conterio explains. "Anybody
can take drugs and feel good. With self-injury, if it works for you, that's an
indication that an underlying issue needs be dealt with -- possibly significant
psychiatric issues. If you're a healthy person, you might try it, but you won't
Self-harm may start with the breakup of a relationship, as an impulsive
reaction. It may start simply out of curiosity. For many kids, it's the result
of a repressive home environment, where negative emotions are swept under the
carpet, where feelings aren't discussed. "A lot of families give the message
that you don't express sadness," says Conterio.
It's a myth that this behavior is simply an attention-getter, adds Lader.
"There's a [painkiller] effect that these kids get from self-harm. When they
are in emotional pain, they literally won't feel that pain as much when they do
this to themselves."
What It Looks Like
David Rosen, MD, MPH, is professor of pediatrics at the University of
Michigan and director of the Section for Teenage and Young Adult Health at the
University of Michigan Health Systems in Ann Arbor.
He offers parents tips on what to watch for:
- Small, linear cuts. "The most typical cuts are very linear, straight line,
often parallel like railroad ties carved into forearm, the upper arm, sometimes
the legs," Rosen tells WebMD. "Some people cut words into themselves. If
they're having body image issues, they may cut the word 'fat.' If they're
having trouble at school, it may be 'stupid,' 'loser,' 'failure,' or a big 'L.'
Those are the things we see pretty regularly."
- Unexplained cuts and scratches, particularly when they appear regularly. "I
wish I had a nickel for every time someone says, 'The cat did it,'" says
- Mood changes like depression or anxiety, out-of-control behavior, changes
in relationships, communication, and school performance. Kids who are unable to
manage day-to-day stresses of life are vulnerable to cutting, says Rosen.
Over time, the cutting typically escalates -- occurring more often, with
more and more cuts each time, Rosen tells WebMD. "It takes less provocation for
them to cut. It takes more cutting to get the same relief -- much like drug
addiction. And, for reasons I can't explain but have heard often enough, the
more blood the better. Most of the cutting I see is quite superficial, and
looks more like scratches than cuts. It's the sort that when you put pressure
on it, it stops the bleeding."