The Sunday Leader

Child Psychology: Why Is My Daughter Cutting Herself?

By Dr. Marcel de Roos (Psychologist PhD)

Self-harm or self-mutilation can consist of any form of trying to hurt oneself. For instance cutting, scratching, burning, banging or hitting. There are no exact figures of the prevalence of self-harm, but researchers estimate that between one and five per cent of the population is engaged in it.
Many people are successful in hiding their injuries out of shame and fear. Very often there is a lack of understanding from family and social workers. The latest research found a huge increase in self-harm with young people, but no different gender rates. This said, it is known that men often engage in different forms of self-harm (predominantly hitting themselves) than women (predominantly cutting themselves).

Cutting is a form of self-harm which typically occurs with young women (teenagers). The reasons vary, but usually it is an expression of unbearable feelings. When you feel so much emotional pain and you can’t cope with that, then the transformation into physical pain is a way to make those feelings more manageable. Some teenagers with problems become agitated and aggressive or start drinking and smoking joints. Others, usually the more introvert types, try to convert the pain within by harming themselves. They bang their heads against the wall, pull out their hairs or start to cut themselves.
Many people who harm themselves have had painful experiences in the past which gave them strong feelings of fear, pain, guilt, anger or helplessness. Simultaneously, they felt that they couldn’t talk about it to anybody or that they were misunderstood. These experiences could have been associated with violence, abuse (emotional, physical or sexual), neglect, humiliation or the loss of important persons. Because of this, a lack of self-esteem is formed and it becomes difficult to express their feelings, especially with others. Loneliness starts to creep in, although there might be a wide circle of acquaintances. Usually the unresolved feelings of pain, distress or anger stay hidden behind a happy and seemingly unbothered exterior. The painful experiences might be over, but still one has the feeling of living on a time bomb. When this becomes unbearable, it can cause self-harm like cutting to relieve that pain.

When confronted with this kind of behaviour, parents should try to listen to their child. Don’t get scared, angry or just talk, but really try to listen. Parents might think one thing, but for teenagers it might be something completely different. When your child trusts you enough she will open up and tell her story. If necessary, parents should look for psychological help.

When in therapy, the whole personality should be taken into account and not only a symptom like cutting. It can take many months before the child takes herself more seriously, regains her self confidence and learns healthier coping mechanisms. Finding alternative methods of coping with the feelings of anxiety or stress or ‘numbness’ is often a good start towards recovery. That can be exercising, painting or writing instead of hurting oneself. But the real change has to come from within. That means that the teenager understands that she has every reason to feel angry and hurt. That she starts to understand why she feels guilty, ashamed or powerless. That she can cry and feel her hurt and that the feeling of hurt will slowly ebb away; that she has the right to exist and be herself.

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