As a mom, your job is to keep your daughter safe. Baby monitors and padded edges on furniture progressed to helmets while biking and making sure your daughter was never bullied at school. Hate to say it, but those may have been the easy years. Easy because she was with you and you could keep her safe. But even as she grew into a teenager and started exploring the world without her parent, you gave her tools you thought would keep her safe from alcohol, drugs, sexting, dating and a million other things that could cause harm her beautiful, amazing little body!
And then the blow comes out of nowhere. You didn’t see this one coming. After all this time keeping your little girl safe from harm, you find out she is actually harming herself. Maybe you got the call from another mom or the school counselor, or maybe you saw it firsthand for yourself. Your job was to keep her safe from the world. There was no way to know this particular danger wasn’t out in the world, but right in your own home.
As a family therapist and the mom of two teenage girls, I can tell you it is going to be OK. Cutting is not typically a suicidal gesture. It can be a symptom of a serious mental health disorder, but it is most likely caused by a lack of proper coping skills. Cutting is talked about on TV, social media, and there are even websites for how to hide it from parents. Ask any teen girl if they know someone who cuts and the answer is probably, “Yeah, of course.”
It is more common that any of us want to believe.
Why is she doing this?
Your daughter is most likely doing this because she’s dealing with difficult emotions. Your daughter’s brain is rapidly developing and one of the biggest changes she’s going through may be her ability to regulate and control emotions. At this stage, she feels feelings passionately and intensely. If she were driving a car instead of her brain, it would be like putting someone in the driver’s seat who doesn’t know how to drive. She’s an inexperienced driver who has no control of the brake pedal to manage the speed at which she has these intense, full speed, feelings. When feelings get too intense (and they don’t have adequate coping skills) cutting can provide some relief. Obviously, it is dangerous and scary and there are better ways to manage the intense feelings.
It feels scary to her, too.
You may never fully understand. You don’t have to. Just know your daughter has discovered cutting helps her slow down and manage the intense feelings. You cannot protect her from the intense feelings. You cannot stop the feelings.
But you can teach her other ways to cope.
How can I help my daughter?
Right now she is using an unhealthy pattern of intense feelings + cutting = relief
As much as we moms would like to protect our daughters from the intense feelings, that is not possible. So instead, teach your daughter to use other coping skills.
Intense feelings + (reading, drawing, journaling, talking, singing, crying, ???) = coping
1. Talk to her about reading, journaling, listening to music, talking to a therapist, drawing, cooking, baking, exercising, gardening, photography, singing, crying, crafting, whatever you can think of to teach her how to work through the tough emotions of life!
2. Teach your daughter to take time away from social media (the speed at which drama and angst in the form of her peer’s emotional intensity travels on social media does not help your daughter manage her own intense feelings) and friends to explore her creativity, her passions, her interests so that she can find behaviors and hobbies that will provide her relief from the intensities of life.
3. Encourage your daughter to stand up for her wants and needs. Help her say “no” to commitments she doesn’t want to make, to friends that are not healthy and activities that are overwhelming or dangerous.
4. Show her how to express feelings that are difficult; mad, sad, guilt, shame, embarrassment, loneliness, disappointment, failure, etc. Girls have their gas pedal to the metal with feelings. They need to learn when to tap the brake, when to slam the brake and most importantly, how to drive with control and confidence in their ability.
You and your daughter can get through this together! She needs you to talk to her about cutting. You are not going to remind her about cutting or give her ideas she doesn’t already have. No matter how uncomfortable it is or how much you struggle to understand the “why” of cutting, she desperately needs to learn new ways to cope.
You are the best person to teach her new and better coping skills.
You have been keeping her safe all these years, and you are still the best person to keep her safe.
If your teen is cutting or you suspect she is cutting, consider seeking help from a licensed mental health provider to discuss any serious mental health concerns.
If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Follow this journey on Joy’s site, Surviving Teen Years.