LOVE LIFE: Coping by Cutting - Understanding and Engaging A Student Who Is Cutting

Posted on by YFC Seattle

By Warren Mainard and Mark Haug

When a student is discovered to be engaged in a practice of cutting or self-harm, it is important for youth leaders and parents to understand the relationship between cutting, depression, and suicide.  In most cases, cutting is not a failed attempt at suicide or even a “cry for help.”  It is most often a coping mechanism for unresolved pain, trauma, or self-loathing.  Parents and youth leaders should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry when encountering a teen who has become caught up in self-harm.  Seeking to understand, not judge, listen, not preach, and empathize, not react is critically important to beginning a process that will lead to restored health.  While a professional counselor should most likely be brought into the process early on, there are still some important things that parents and youth leaders should understand and do when relating with a student involved in cutting.

  1. Know the Signs:  There are many signs of cutting, the first being the visible appearance of scars, cuts, bruises or burns, usually on the wrists, arms, thighs, or chest.  Blood stains on clothing, towels, or bedding or the possession of sharp objects such as razors, knives, or glass in a student’s personal belongings.  A student engaged in self-harm may claim to be “accident prone” as a way of explaining away their injuries, or may insist on covering up their skin, even in hot weather.  Students engaged in self-harm will often spend long periods of time alone, with the doors locked, particularly in their bedroom or in the bathroom.  They may also become abnormally irritable and isolated socially.  If you observe any of these signs, it would be wise to ask good questions.
  2. Ask Insightful Questions: The depth and the directiveness of your questions will be relative to the trust you have earned in your relationship with a students.  A parent or youth leader may want to ask probing questions such as, “When you look in the mirror, what do you see?” “Describe a relationship that is causing you emotional pain right now?”  “How do you cope with difficult things that seem out of your control?”  It may be necessary to be more direct in your questions, asking, “Have you ever intentionally hurt yourself?”  “How does cutting, or self-harm numb or distract you from your emotional pain?” “Have you ever thought about taking your own life?”  If a student shares that they are engaged in self-harm, or even suicidal ideations, it may require an immediate response, including calling a help hotline such as Safe 2 Tell - 1-877-542-7233.
  3. Explore Healthy Coping Practices:  At its root, self-harm is generally an unhealthy coping mechanism.  Like alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, and even shopping or video game addictions, cutting is a way to escape momentarily from the pain of the present circumstances.  Parents and youth leaders should encourage and help foster healthy coping practices such as - exercise (sports, working out, going for a walk), expression (writing a journal or poetry, painting or drawing, singing or acting, etc), and embracing relationships (experiencing healthy community or a mentor relationship with a caring adult.)  Students may even want to try to engage in some physical soothing activities like taking a bath or hot shower, petting an animal, wrapping up in warm blanket, or even rubbing an ice cube over the places a student might normally cut.
  4. Ongoing Care:  Every student needs 3-5 healthy relationships with a caring adult.  It is important for young people to have a trust relationship with an adult who is not a parent.  Students engaged in a supportive student ministry can find many of these basic needs met.  Parents and youth leaders should communicate that while they cannot guarantee happiness, they will help them become stronger and to stay with them through the rocky moments of the journey.  Be quick to involve professional and pastoral care as you are able, remembering that as a parent or a youth leader, you cannot be a students’ savior.

Ultimately, the good news of Jesus is a powerful reminder that the scars on Jesus’ wrists and legs and side are evidence of God’s tremendous love for us and the possibility for a new and better life.  The portrayal of Jesus as the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 reminds us that Jesus can empathize with our pain and that His wounds are the means of our healing and inner-peace.  Parents and youth leaders should gently guide students into a deep understanding of God’s unfolding grace in the lives of their students.


Other Posts in this Series:

LOVE LIFE: Critical Care for Students and Care Givers in a Suicide Culture

LOVE LIFE: Suicide in Seattle - 16 Risk Factors

LOVE LIFE: Breaking the Code of Silence

LOVE LIFE: Engaging with Suicidal Students

LOVE LIFE: 8 Thinking Errors Common Among Suicidal Students

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