There are many underlying issues when someone goes around cutting/mutilating themselves. I used to teach in an all-girls’ school. These were my personal observations and experiences:
1. If they were cutting themselves in areas where the scars can be seen for eg on the wrists or palms, then its highly probable that they want to be ‘caught’ cuz its a way for them to cry out for attention for their suffering.
2. Then there are others who will mutilate their upper arms or their chests where the scars won’t be that visible. Most of them use a razor. They usually start off by experimenting and depending on their threshhold of pain initially, it might start of with a superficial cut and as they become bolder, the cuts increase in number and depth.
3. When questioned, one of them admitted that she could not voice out her feelings of distress, hence cutting was a way of expression. As weird as it sounds, the pain from cutting kind of ‘compensates’ from the emotional pain they are feeling inside.
4. Many of them, ironically, came from middle-class to well-to-do background. Unfortunately, not having a close relationship with their parents allowed this ‘activity’ to go undetected. I cite the case of a girl who lived in a double story landed property. Her father was a pilot who was away most of the time and her mother worked long hours. Her parents were also having problems in their marriage. This girl constantly sought solace in her room on the 2nd floor and resorted to such an act to find some sense of ‘release.’ Then, there was a foreign student who lived on her own and had relationship problems, which culminated in her cutting herself as she became depressed after it ended.
5. In so far in the years that I have taught, I don’t recall any of them admitting that it was a trend. But then again, as mentioned, these are my own personal experiences and observations.
So parents with teen or tween daughters (I cannot speak for the boys as I have not come across any), because this is the age where hormones are working overtime, there’ll be some form of angst, rebellion, being overtly emotional about issues etc…that will be evident from them. Do not dismiss this as some form of negative behaviour too quickly. Observe and listen. Most of the time, they might be throwing hints (may be deliberate too) that something is bothering them. It could be anything – a failed relationship, an unrequited crush, a fight with the best friend, not doing well in school, being constantly compared in school or at home, neglect by parents, affected by parents’ estranged relationship, not adapting well to the school’s culture, not able to make friends, being bullied etc… One example, though not related to mutilating, but the girl was having problems with her parents – she handed up a blank piece of paper with this statement "Why should I waste my f****** time writing a composition, I have better things to do." Though shocked and angered, I deliberately did not report her but rather, took the time to seek her out after school and had a long chat with her. Turned out that she had some issues with her parents and she was taking it out in her EL class. Hence, the importance of not writing off negative behaviour.
How can this situation be resolved?? One thing is for sure – the act of mutilating oneself will not ‘disappear’ overnight. Its something like a ‘disorder’. One fundamental advice – communication lines have to be OPEN. As parents, we have to sieve out nuances from them via verbal and behavourable analysis. They have to be approached neutrally, even though we may not be able to digest/accept what they are doing/may have done, because it is very shocking. And yes, if necessary, external help should be sought. Even then, they have to be monitered for some time to ensure that they would not return to their ‘old habit.’ In fact, in such situations, it is imperative that the school (esp the teachers) and the parents complement each other in trying to resolve this.
As a teacher, depending on my relationship with the girls, I would approach them or if I am aware that they are close to another teacher, I would request for help. Only after trying to weed out from them that they are engaged in such an activity, then I would contact their parents and then with their permission, engage the school counsellor. Sometimes, the girls would NOT want their parents to be informed (because of issues they have at home). This is the tricky part, because the parents have the right to know. I would inform the parents, but then request that they trust in us and let us help their child while they will be updated regularly. When such a situation arises, we will also then make a conscious effort to convince the girl that her parents have to know as they (the parents) want to help too.