She’s just doing it for attention

 A child has begun cutting their own skin. Perhaps this is your child or maybe you have heard of one of your child’s peers”cutting.”    I frequently meet with children and adult’s alike who self injure.  Usually, this happens when one uses a sharp object such as a knife or razor blade to cut their skin.   So, why would someone do this?  What is this all about?  Are they just doing it for attention?

Yes and No.

When I answer ” yes” to this question, it’s conditional about the location and the severity of the cut or self injury.  Typically, superficial  cuts (think briar scratch or cat scratch) on the lower wrists or forearms that are visible and not hidden are “asking to be seen.”     So, do we ignore the cuts?  Should parents and peers respond with eye rolls and comments like “you are just trying to get attention?”   No! Unless the goal is to harm their self esteem, create shame, and increase the likelihood their cutting becomes more serious and hidden from those who can help.  

Instead, caring parents, adults and peers want to consider why a child would choose self harm as a means of getting attention.  The chief concernis why a child would take such drastic measures to have parents or peers focus on them.  Answers to this question include confusion with how to cope with emotions, poor relational skills, uncertainity of self-worth,  depression, anxiety and loneliness.

When I answer “No” to this question, cuts are generally located on the upper thighs,  stomach and areas that are easily hidden from others.     Cuts in these locations are typically more severe, create an open wound, scabbing and scarring.  People who cut in these locations define their cutting as an act of deliberately harming their body but without the intent of suicide. 

The following are typical descriptions of why they do this:

  • “I feel a release when I cut.”
  • “It takes away my anger.”
  • “It’s addictive.”
  • “I can focus on the physical pain instead of my reality.”

Despite reports of the momentary sense of calm and release of tension, people who cut consistently report guilt, shame and return of painful emotions.  This cycle mimics that of an alcoholic/drug addict.  Instead of the drug of choice muting the pain, the cutting does the work but only temporarily and never without additional physical and emotional harm.  

Self Injury does not have to be a life-long struggle.   Appropriate mental health treatment is effective and can not only extinguish the destructive coping mechanism  but also enrich a person’s life with comforting and healing coping styles that instill self-confidence and peace. 

By all means, give tender and direct attention to anyone who cuts by expressing concern and directing them to appropriate mental health treatment .

Leigh Hurley

Leigh Hurley, MA, LPC has been a therapist for over 10 years. She is a dedicated advocate for children and teens.

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