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Cutting Edge

Why even Christian teens aren't immune from the epidemic of self-mutilation—and what you can do.

Forty-one percent: That's how many respondents to our recent online poll at www.todayschristianwoman.com said they've either known someone who self-mutilates, did so at some point in their life, or have a child who has been a cutter. While the results of our poll aren't scientific, they do demonstrate a chilling trend. For a closer look at the problem of teen self-mutilation, read on. —The Editors

She lingered behind the others, waiting to speak to me after my workshop at a Christian parenting conference.

"My daughter's hurting herself," the woman whispered, her eyes brimming with tears. "I don't know what to do."

She'd discovered faded marks on her daughter's arms a few days earlier. When she inquired about the scars, her daughter made an excuse. But later, when the mother passed her daughter's half-opened bedroom door and caught her changing, she spotted fresh cuts running up and down her child's legs. When she confronted her daughter, she was stunned to discover additional self-inflicted cuts to her daughter's torso.

She called her stomach her "billboard," carving on it words she couldn't say to anyone else.

"I've asked myself a hundred times what I did wrong," the woman told me. "My daughter's 15. She's bright. She has friends. I didn't know anyone did this … "

A Troubling Trend

This behavior has many names: cutting, self-injury, self-mutilation, self-violence. It includes not only cutting but also scratching, picking scabs, burning, punching, bruising or breaking bones, or pulling out hair. Though death isn't the goal of this deliberate, repetitive harm to one's body, it can cause scarring, infection, and even fatality if a cut goes too deep or an infection isn't treated.

Self-injury crosses economic brackets, education, race, gender, and age. But the majority of those involved are middle- to upper-class adolescent girls. Exact statistics are hard to pinpoint because the behavior often is hidden. But one thing's clear: The growing trend of self-injury isn't confined to teens outside the church. As a youth worker, I've connected with Christian teens for more than 15 years. Until a few years ago, self-injury was rarely mentioned. That's changed.

Recently I attended a basketball game with several Christian teens. When a player swished a three-pointer, we jumped to our feet to celebrate, and a girl in front of me threw her hands up in the air. That's when I saw the faded scars that ran down the length of one arm; two small cuts veered across the large vein on her hand. Without thinking, I placed my hand over the cuts, and she jerked down her sleeve.

"How long have you been cutting?" I asked quietly.

She sat next to me, slowly raised her sleeve, and revealed the path of emotional pain marked by razor blades. "I've never told anybody about this," she said. "I'm only talking to you because you didn't freak out. The last thing I want is for my Christian friends to think I'm evil or possessed. I love God with all my heart. But I feel so trapped."

Behind the Behavior

Brooke Shewmaker, a 20-year-old college student I met while conducting research, told me that when she was 16, she hid behind locked doors so her mom wouldn't discover her self-injuring activities. Brooke carved her arms with a razor blade and later moved to her stomach. Brooke called her stomach her "billboard," etching on it feelings she couldn't communicate with anyone else. I had to ask Brooke the question that loomed large in my mind: Why would any teen secretly inflict pain on her body?

"In some ways, it felt like the only control I had at the time," Brooke told me. "I felt rejected. My mother was a counselor but didn't have time to talk to me. My father lived in a different state. Boyfriends failed me, and I didn't know Jesus for whom he was. I wanted something I could control, a sense of power—and cutting gave me that."

According to Lysamena*, a former cutter who's been a Christian since age 11, "I know people whose self-injury started because they were so disgusted with themselves, they felt hurting themselves was the only logical thing to do."

When parents see the wounds on their teen's arms, they often react in fear, shock, and anger. They threaten. They beg. They want it to stop. According to Wendy Lader, Ph.D., founder of S.A.F.E. Alternatives, a residential program for self-injurers, "Two common reactions are either to become furious at the teen and to punish her, or to minimize the behavior as a phase or bid for attention and to ignore it."

But Leslie Vernick, licensed counselor at Christ-Centered Counseling for Individuals and Families, says a teen's really saying, Help, I'm hurting and I don't know how to deal with my pain!

"Endorphins released during cutting often soothe some deeper emotional pain—rejection, depression, self-hatred, or helplessness," Vernick explains. A teen who self-injures finds instant release through the biochemical reaction and correlates cutting with comfort.

Lader describes self-injury as "self-medication." Cutters haven't learned to express their emotions, so the feelings persist. "The teen uses physical pain to communicate something she's unable or unwilling to put into words," explains Vernick. "She needs help to process whatever emotional pain she feels so she'll learn healthy ways of dealing with hurts instead."

The first step for parents is to focus on your teen's deeper emotional needs. "If you discover your child's self-injuring, ask lots of questions. Is this a one-time thing? Is it a pattern? What did your child hope to accomplish by doing this?" Vernick advises. "Check other body parts. Arms and legs are favorite spots for cutting; if you spot old marks, don't hesitate to get professional help ASAP."

Repairing the Damage

A year ago, my friend Channi*, a recent divorcee, discovered her youngest daughter, Marissa*, was cutting herself.

"This isn't something you share at Bible study," Channi told me. "I was afraid they wouldn't understand, or worse, judge my daughter or me."

Channi and Marissa went to a Christian family counselor. There Channi discovered Marissa was angry and felt abandoned by her father. Marissa suppressed her feelings because the whole family was struggling and she didn't want to be a burden. Cutting became her release.

After several sessions, Marissa began talking openly about her feelings. The counselor also connected Marissa with an older teen who once self-injured but was now free of cutting. They became e-mail friends.

Brianna*, the teen I met at the basketball game, has ridden the self-injury roller coaster for more than three years. She started cutting when she was 14. At first, her parents disciplined her, scolded her, and watched her every move. But after three years, they realized the problem wasn't going away. They found a counselor, and Brianna began weekly sessions.

Brianna's recovering, but in the past two months she relapsed twice. Brianna's greatest challenge? She feels alone in her recovery. When she tries to let her parents know she's tempted, they respond with, "That's what the counselor is for."

I talked with Channi recently, and her report was more enthusiastic. "Marissa's still seeing a counselor, who assures me she's doing well, and I believe it. We have an open-door policy in our house, and if any of us is struggling, we pray about it together."

Without becoming overbearing, Channi watches for warning signs such as long sleeves and pants in hot weather. Channi and Marissa are also aware of triggers—anything that causes a strong desire to cut impulsively. Triggers include music, websites, or blogs (online public diaries) devoted to self-injury. Marissa's computer is in full view of everyone at home and has filtering software.

Together Channi and Marissa rid the house of shaving razors (Marissa bought hair-removal cream) and any ordinary item that seemed harmless to Channi but tempted her daughter (such as a ruler Marissa kept in her notebook).

Channi let Marissa know how much she was loved, even when she lapsed. If Marissa felt tempted to cut or actually self-injured, despite her shame and guilt, she knew she could go to her mom. Channi learned to react without fear or anger.

"If I'd focused on the injury rather than what was going on in Marissa's life, we'd still be struggling," Channi says today.

Finding God in the Pain

After Lysamena found healing, she created a website (www.self-injury.org) for those struggling with self-violence. It receives roughly 2,000 visits per month.

"It's more prevalent among Christian teens than people like to think," she says. "Self-injury is just beginning to be recognized and treated in Christian circles. If you do it, you feel like a freak. You feel unlovable, as if you were beyond God's grace. But a cutter needs to realize Jesus loves her as she is—and that his atonement is sufficient for her sins."

Lysamena's breakthrough came before she turned 15, when her parents transferred her to a Christian high school. "Two counselors there became my advocates and friends. They weren't afraid to discuss self-injury, and I learned from them to cling to Bible verses during hard times. They supported me—as did many people from my youth group. Their compassion, understanding, and kindness helped me stop hurting myself."

Brooke felt hope when she realized God wasn't repulsed by her behavior. Her breakthrough came when she grasped the fact she belonged to a compassionate, loving God who still believed in her.

"It's not a God thing to inflict pain upon yourself," says Brooke. "But as Corrie ten Boom once said, 'There is no pit that Jesus is not deeper still.' God offers an option for a clean slate. He's Jehovah-Rophe, my healer."

The timely message for the hurting mom I met at the conference that day—and for other families struggling with self-injury—is this: God isn't afraid of the tough stuff. There is hope, and there are positive steps to take to find healing.

While self-injury can be a squeamish topic, it's an important one. And no matter how this behavior appears to the outside world, God views these teens and their parents through a lens of worth. tcw

T. Suzanne Eller, a TCW regular contributor, is a speaker to teens and parents of teens and the author of Real Issues, Real Teens—What Every Parent Needs to Know (Life Journey/Cook). Check out her website, www.daretobelieve.org.

*names have been changed

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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