Focus on the Family

Kids Cut Themselves as Way to Deal With Pain

Q: Our daughter just recently started to cut herself. We are in counseling and trying to get help for her. What are your thoughts on why teens want to hurt themselves in this manner?

Juli: Human beings are wired to avoid pain. So it is difficult to understand why your daughter would intentionally cut herself.

Imagine that your daughter's emotional well-being is like a bank account with deposits and withdrawals. Deposits are aspects in your daughter's life that make her feel secure and help her cope. Deposits might include a stable home life, solid friendships, accomplishments, exercise and getting enough sleep. Withdrawals are internal or external stresses like being rejected by a friend, bullying, going through divorce, failing (even perceived failure!), and dramatic changes in daily life.

Teens who injure themselves have an "overdrawn" emotional bank account. Their level of distress is greater than their ability to cope. Cutting is an attempt to control and express overwhelming pain. That pain might be the result of a traumatic event, like a friend's death or being sexually abused. Other sensitive teens can become overwhelmed by the "normal" challenges of adolescence. Cutting can also be triggered by underlying mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Helping your daughter through this crisis involves three steps: identifying the source of her distress, minimizing her distress, and giving her healthier ways to cope. Getting her into counseling will help do all three of these things. At home, you can be a source of encouragement and support. You can also model and help her develop healthy coping skills such as exercise, prayer and journaling.

Jim: Advocates of co-sleeping claim that it gives infants a greater sense of security and comfort and eliminates the need for parents to get out of bed for midnight feedings. Nevertheless, most reputable family counselors and child development experts advise against it.

For example, research indicates that babies sleeping with Mom and Dad are at greater risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), because adult bedding materials are not safe for sleeping newborns. The Journal of Pediatrics asserts that the risk of suffocation increases 20-fold when babies are placed in adult beds rather than in their own cribs.

There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the theory that, once established, the habit of co-sleeping can be hard to break. It can actually become a commitment of many years if children are reluctant to transition out of their parents' bed.

Finally, there's the issue of marital intimacy. Couples who are looking to resume sexual activity after a pregnancy won't find the "family bed" particularly conducive to their design. One of the best things you can do for your child is maintain a close, healthy marriage.

For these reasons, we agree with pediatricians who maintain that children need to learn to fall asleep by themselves, in their own crib or bed. At the same time, we know that in some cases, it can be helpful to keep a baby in a bassinet next to the parents' bed for the first few months of his or her life. And you can always get the benefits of the family bed experience by snuggling with your child in bed after everyone is awake in the morning. My boys still do this even at 9 and 11, and it's a highlight of the day!

Dr. Juli Slattery is a licensed psychologist, co-host of Focus on the Family, author of several books, and a wife and mother of three.)

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