“Self-mutilation is what people do when they cannot express in words the emotional pain they feel.” – Psychologist Hara Estroff Marano (Psychology Today, April 2008, p. 50)
The reasons behind cutting & self injury in children
For many people, the idea of a child’s cutting or self-mutilation in response to distress can seem pointless, perhaps even downright absurd. Yet such practices do not become widespread without serving some sort of purpose, whether rational or irrational. By better understanding the different reasons your child may be engaging in self-injury, you can approach the situation with greater compassion and empathy.
1)The common pathway between physical and emotional pain
Modern neuroscience has shown that both physical pain and social pain (the kind that comes by way of ridicule or shame or rejection) shares a neural network in the brain. Social pain actually lights up the same brain regions that are in charge of registering physical pain. In other words, rejection and ridicule hurts – literally.
It stands to reason that this principle also works in reverse. By hurting themselves, a person may in effect be substituting physical pain for emotional pain. The pain caused by self-injury keeps these brain regions preoccupied, providing temporary relief from feelings of shame, alienation or inadequacy.
2) Self-injury in response to frustration
Most parents will have witnessed a time when a small child, in the midst of a severe emotional tantrum, does something like bite themselves, bang their head against a wall, or destroy a favorite toy or cherished piece of artwork. These destructive acts aimed towards the self or personal property emerge out of extreme frustration. As noted by child psychologist D’Aroy Lyness, Ph.D., “stress, frustration, helplessness, hurt, or anger can be overwhelming emotions for some children. If feelings are strong, and a child doesn’t have a constructive way to express or release the feeling, he or she may feel like a volcano ready to erupt.” (Kids Health, 2005, p. 2)
A similar sense of frustration probably plays a role in more sophisticated cases of self-injury as well. Hurting themselves provides youth a way to release this pent-up frustration; relieving pressure so that they don’t blow.
3) Self injury as a means of self-punishment
In lab studies, participants who are first asked to remember something that made them feel guilty before being told to stick their hand in ice water kept their hand submerged in the painfully cold water for longer. (Peck, 2011) Though they were not consciously aware of it, the feelings of guilt drove them to willingly subject themselves to more pain than their non-guilt feeling counterparts. A similar mechanism is probably at work behind cutting, wherein physical pain or mutilation is a type of self-punishment that a teen engages in to compensate for feelings of guilt or shame.
“A child may blame himself when things go wrong,” says Lyness. “He may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or angry at himself for his part in the situation. Hurting himself on purpose may be a way to express the stress, and blame himself at the same time.” (Kids Health, 2005, p. 2)
4) To establish control
“It really hurt, but I figured if I could tough it out, it would prove I could get through the other things happening in my life. I knew it didn’t make sense, yet I felt better.
For that moment, I was in charge.” – Caia, a l5-year-old girl and former cutter (Moninger, 2011, p. 54)
In an odd sort of way, self-injury can give a person a sense of control. When it feels like their life is in shambles or when others hurt them in a way they can’t control, self-mutilation provides a sense of empowerment. It says: I’m in charge, I can do this, and if others hurt me, so what, because I’m going to hurt myself. People also may use it as a way to test themselves, as illustrated by the teen quoted above.
5) Teen self-mutilation to induce a sense of numbness
A surprising number of kids say that self-injury has a calming effect on them. This is possibly due to the release of emotions that it brings, and it’s also possible that the activity helps them focus, similar to the way people might feel relaxed after acupuncture. Cutting also releases endorphins (essentially the brain’s natural heroin) in response to the pain, thus inducing a sense of emotional calm.
6) Kids hurt themselves simply to feel
A lyric from the classic song Dirt sums up the spirit that guides many self-injurers: “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel…I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” For children who are seriously depressed, cutting or self-mutilation helps them escape feelings of numbness or emptiness that exist inside. The pain is a way to feel something. Oddly enough, it helps them feel alive.
The culture and collective identity of self-injurers
As time goes on and a child gets more involved, self-injury can morph into an aspect of their identity. Teens may come across other teens who cut and compare scars with each other. They then may share stories about their pain or talk about the things that are happening in their life. There are numerous website communities that revolve around self-injury, and some teens will even post self-injury videos on the Internet, prompting others to copy the method or even expand upon it to push the envelope and try to outdo each other. A study that analyzed such videos found the top 100 posts had been collectively viewed more than two million times and had an average rating of 4.6 our of 5 stars. (Szabo, 2/21/2011) A collective culture can form around this dangerous habit that provides a sense of connection and belonging – something most self-injurers are desperately searching for.
Self-injury can become habit forming
Once a child starts this habit, it can become a compulsive behavior. They come to regard it as a staple of their weekly routine, and so not doing it can feel weird.