Tips for helping a cutter find relief

From time to time I get emails from youth workers asking for advice on how to help kids who cut. I’m certainly no expert nor do I have any licenses or degrees that permit me to speak on the matter with any kind of authority, but I have worked with several cutters in the past and have learned a bit both through those experiences and my own personal research. Maybe some of these tips will help some of you, as well.

1. Listen to their pain
There’s usually something deeper in a student’s life that’s causing them so much pain that they’re not even sure how to deal with it. They take the emotional pain they feel and express it physically on their body and in doing so create a visual of what they feel inside. For those several minutes, they’re no longer focused on the internal pain and that feels good. For some cutters, there’s not necessarily a “painful experience” in their lives or their past, it’s just that cutting is the only thing they feel they can control in their life. Or, they feel so much pressure to succeed and do well in school that cutting becomes their coping mechanism. So when you meet a cutter, listen to them. Don’t make judgments, jump to conclusions or offer advice, just let them speak and share their stories. That outlet alone can work miracles.

2. Ask questions
The flip-side to this is that sometimes a cutter doesn’t even know where to start talking about their their pain or their addiction to cutting. In cases like this, some questions can help prompt a response and get you both headed in the right direction. Try some of these:

  • Why do you feel that you need to hurt yourself? What has brought you to this point?
  • Have you been here before? What did you do to deal with it? How did you feel then?
  • What have you done to ease this discomfort so far? What else can you do that won’t hurt you?
  • How do you feel right now?
  • How do you feel when you are hurting yourself?
  • How will you feel after hurting yourself? How will you feel tomorrow morning?
  • How will hurting yourself affect others that care about you?
  • How will it affect your relationship with God?
  • Can you avoid this stressor or deal with it better in the future?
  • Do you need to hurt yourself?

3. Cutting can become a chemical addiction
Expecting someone to stop cutting just because it’s bad for them is like asking a smoker to just stop smoking. The chemical addiction is hard to break. When someone cuts, it releases endorphins into the blood stream, which produce a sense of well-being, like a natural pain killer. It’s easy to become addicted to that feeling and those chemicals in the blood, but unfortunately, like most addictions, it can lead to a downward spiral of needing more and more to feel the same “natural high” as before. This leads to more frequent and deeper cutting even though the cutter may no longer remember what caused him/her to start cutting in the first place.

4. Find good Christian counseling for the student
Never try to be a hero and think you can help a student like this on your own. Most youth workers are not clinically trained to handle situations like this, so partner with a professional Christian counselor in your area. Unfortunately, I’ve found this to be a pretty sticky process because some students cut because of situations at home involving their parents. Since the student is a minor, they can’t see a Christian counselor without their parent’s consent, but on the other hand, if the parent finds out their daughter is cutting, they might backlash on her even more. So call the Christian counselor and seek their advice.

5. Encourage them spiritually
Never underestimate the power of prayer. Pray for the person! Depending on confidentiality, gather others to pray. Whether they want to cut because of anger, frustration, sorrow, to feel the pain, numbness, whatever, God knows about it. Their prayer is not going to surprise Him at all. Encourage them to tell God why they want to cut. Encourage them to go into details if that helps, just let it all out. Also teach the cutter how to spend time with God, how to read the Bible and how to take their pain to Him. Do your best to help the cutter mature spiritually and use the power of the Holy Spirit to live for Him in all areas of life.

6. Surround the cutter with encouragement
In one of my past youth groups a cutter attended who didn’t feel like she was very special to anyone, but whenever she walked through the door at youth group everyone always clapped and got excited saying, “Hey, Melissa is here!” (as we did for everyone who walked through the door). It was at that moment that a smile would creep across her face, the only smile she’d have all week. Through that environment and the feeling of safety and love, she began to talk about her problems and found a group of other girls who would support her and encourage her. What a difference that made in her struggle with cutting!

7. Research cutting yourself
Amy Sondova, Editor of and YMX: All Access, wrote an extensive and very helpful handbook for youth workers on the issue of self-harm called, When Cutting Comes to Church: How Youth Workers can help teens who self-injure. Download her ebook free of charge from here.

Here are some other sites that might prove to be helpful, as well.

8. Offer some alternatives
I’ve found that encouraging exercise can be somewhat helpful if the cutter isn’t already a hardcore athlete because exercise also releases endorphins and may give them that temporary “high” without having to cut.

Below are some other suggestions you can offer to someone who struggles with cutting, categorized according to the reason the person wants to cut. This list was sent to me via email several years ago by a ministry that no longer exists. I’m not sure I’d recommend all these alternatives, especially since none of them actually deal with the root issues of pain, but maybe they could be helpful as a temporary substitute for self-injury in a severe situation.

Angry, Frustrated, Restless
Try something physical and violent, something not directed at a living thing:

  • Slash an empty plastic soda bottle or a piece of heavy cardboard or an old shirt or sock.
  • Make a soft cloth doll to represent the things you are angry at. Cut and tear it instead of yourself.
  • Flatten aluminum cans for recycling, seeing how fast you can go.
  • Hit a punching bag.
  • Use a pillow to hit a wall, pillow-fight style.
  • Rip up an old newspaper or phone book.
  • On a sketch or photo of yourself, mark in red ink (non-toxic) what you want to do. Cut and tear the picture.
  • Make Play-Doh or Sculpey or other clay models and cut or smash them.
  • Throw ice into the bathtub or against a brick wall hard enough to shatter it.
  • Break sticks.
  • Crank up the music and dance.
  • Clean your room (or your whole house).
  • Go for a walk/jog/run.
  • Stomp around in heavy shoes.
  • Play handball or tennis.

Sad, Soft, Melancholy, Depressed, Unhappy
Do something slow and soothing:

  • Take a hot bath with bath oil or bubbles
  • Curl up under a comforter with hot cocoa and a good book, babying yourself somehow.
  • Light sweet-smelling incense.
  • Listen to soothing music.
  • Smooth nice body lotion into the parts or yourself you want to hurt.
  • Call a friend and just talk about things that you like.
  • Make a tray of special treats and tuck yourself into bed with it and watch TV or read.
  • Visit a friend.
  • Do whatever makes you feel taken care of and comforted.

Craving sensation, Feeling depersonalized, Dissociating, Feeling unreal
Do something that creates a sharp physical sensation:

  • Squeeze ice hard (this really hurts). (Note: putting ice on a spot you want to burn gives you a strong painful sensation and leaves a red mark afterward, kind of like burning would.)
  • Put a finger into a frozen food (like ice cream) for a minute.
  • Bite into a hot pepper or chew a piece of ginger root.
  • Rub liniment under your nose.
  • Slap a tabletop hard.
  • Snap your wrist with a rubber band.
  • Take a cold bath.
  • Stomp your feet on the ground.
  • Focus on how it feels to breathe. Notice the way your chest and stomach move with each breath.
  • (NOTE: Some people report that being online while dissociating increases their sense of unreality; be cautious about logging on in a dissociative state until you know how it affects you.)

Wanting focus

  • Do a task (like Tetris or Minesweeper, writing a computer program, needlework, etc) that is exacting and requires focus and concentration.
  • Eat a raisin mindfully. Pick it up, noticing how it feels in your hand. Look at it carefully; see the asymmetries and think about the changes the grape went through. Roll the raisin in your fingers and notice the texture; try to describe it. Bring the raisin up to your mouth, paying attention to how it feels to move your hand that way. Smell the raisin; what does it remind you of? How does a raisin smell? Notice that you’re beginning to salivate, and see how that feels. Open your mouth and put the raisin in, taking time to think about how the raisin feels to your tongue. Chew slowly, noticing how the texture and even the taste of the raisin change as you chew it. Are there little seeds or stems? How is the inside different from the outside? Finally, swallow.
  • Choose an object in the room. Examine it carefully and then write as detailed a description of it as you can. Include everything: size, weight, texture, shape, color, possible uses, feel, etc.
  • Choose a random object, like a paper clip, and try to list 30 different uses for it.
  • Pick a subject and research it on the web.
  • Try playing some games.

Wanting to see blood

  • Draw on yourself with a red felt-tip pen.
  • Take a small bottle of liquid red food coloring and warm it slightly by dropping it into a cup of hot water for a few minutes. Uncap the bottle and press its tip against the place you want to cut. Draw the bottle in a cutting motion while squeezing it slightly to let the food color trickle out.
  • Draw on the areas you want to cut using ice that you’ve made by dropping six or seven drops of red food color into each of the ice-cube tray wells.
  • Paint yourself with red tempera paint.

Wanting to see scars or pick scabs
Get a henna tattoo kit. You put the henna on as a paste and leave it overnight; the next day you can pick it off as you would a scab and it leaves an orange-red mark behind.

Posted on December 3, 2007

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