Emotional Intelligence | Main page on cutting


Two articles about cutting


Here are two articles about cutting... later I will add more of my comments. But for now I want to say that the word parent or parents was only found once between the two articles.

Here is the only reference to parents (from the second article

Parents may mean well but be too uncomfortable with negative emotion to allow their children to express it, and the result is unintentional invalidation. Chronic invalidation can lead to almost subconscious self-invalidation and self-distrust, and to the "I never mattered" feelings van der Kolk et al. describe.

Article about cutting no longer being rare among teens

Cutting connected to childhood trauma and invalidation

No Longer Rare Among Teens

Cutting and Other Dangerous Acts Becoming New Cries for Help By
Jennifer Warner
WebMD Medical News Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD
on Thursday, November 21, 2002

Nov. 21, 2002 -- For desperate teenagers overwhelmed with emotions that
they cannot express, deliberate self-injury is becoming an increasingly
popular and dangerous form of self-expression.

A British study of nearly 6,000 students shows that over their lifetime, 13%
of 15- and 16-year-olds have carried out an act of deliberate self-harm.
Within the past year, an act of deliberate self-harm occurred in about 400
of the students. Only 50 students went to the hospital, which suggests that
the problem may be even more widespread. American experts say those
numbers aren't surprising, but until now there has been relatively little
research on the issue.

The study, which appears in the Nov. 23 issue of the British Medical
Journal, was based on a survey conducted in England from fall 2000 to
spring 2001.

Wendy Lader, PhD, co-author of the book Bodily Harm, says an estimated
1% of the U.S. population as a whole resorts to physical self-injury to cope
with extreme emotional distress, but that rate is much higher among
adolescents and females.

Lader says the phenomenon of self-harm has been around forever, but not
at the level it is now. She says that not only are people talking about it more
but it's also becoming more common as teens search for a new way to
rebel and express themselves.

"It's harder for kids to get noticed as individuals, and they don't have the
words for it," says Lader, who is also clinical director of the SAFE
(Self-Abuse Finally Ends) Alternatives program at Linden Oaks at Edward
Hospital in Naperville, Ill. "So they show it -- even if it's just to themselves
because it makes it real for them. It's almost like their body becomes a
bulletin board on which to notch their pain."

For some, hurting themselves is a form of suicidal behavior. In fact, nearly
half of the students surveyed who engaged in the behavior said they had
wanted to die. But for others, Lader says self-injury is a survival method.

"It's a coping strategy to deal with intolerable pain, but it works for them so
it's a way of surviving," says Lader. But she says there is always the risk
that once the method stops working for them, they could commit suicide --
either accidentally or purposefully.

Researchers say girls seem to be especially prone to self-injurious
behavior, and the study found acts of self-harm were four times more
common among girls than boys.

Lader says that when girls have a strong emotional response, they tend to
act inward rather than outward because it's not "feminine" to be that angry.

"Girls will act on themselves and tend to say that they would rather hurt
themselves than anyone else -- not realizing that no one needs to get hurt,"
says Lader. Coupled with the fact that girls tend to be very body conscious
and more dissatisfied with their bodies, she says it's not a stretch for some
girls to take their anger out on their body.

David Fassler, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice in
Burlington, Vt., says the study's findings are important because they show
that there is a significant number of adolescents both in this country and
elsewhere in world who have either suicidal or other self-destructive
thoughts, plans, and impulses who actually engage in these acts.

"These are kids that are calling out for help, and we need to do a better job
at recognizing the warning signs and getting these kids the help that they
need," says Fassler, who is also a spokesman for the American Academy
of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Warning signs of self-injurious behavior may include the following:

A history of emotional problems, abuse, or exposure to violence (even if
the child was not physically abused)
Drug or alcohol abuse
Impulsive behavior
Low self-esteem

Fassler says emotional events such as a breakup with a girlfriend or
boyfriend or being kicked out of class or a sports team may also act as a
trigger for this type of activity. He says many of the adolescents that resort
to harming themselves suffer from undiagnosed depression or other
mental disorders that require evaluation and treatment by a trained

As the study authors conclude, "In many cases, self harming behaviour
represents a transient period of distress; in others it is an important
indicator of mental health problems and risk of suicide.

"Our findings support the need for development and evaluation of school
based programmes for the promotion of mental health," write study author
Keith Hawton, professor of psychiatry at the Centre for Suicide Research
at Warneford Hospital in Oxford, England, and colleagues.


SOURCES: British Medical Journal, Nov. 23, 2002 • David Fassler, MD,
child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice in Burlington, Vt. •
Wendy Lader, PhD, clinical director of SAFE (Self-Abuse Finally Ends)
Alternatives at Linden Oaks at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill., and
co-author of Bodily Harm • American Self-Harm Information Clearinghouse
web site • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry web

Cutting Behavior and Suicidality Connected to Childhood Trauma

Etiology (history and causes)

Past trauma/invalidation as an antecedent

Van der Kolk, Perry, and Herman (1991) conducted a study of patients
who exhibited cutting behavior and suicidality. They found that exposure to
physical abuseor sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, and chaotic
family conditions during childhood, latency and adolescence were reliable
predictors of the amount and severity of cutting. The earlier the abuse
began, the more likely the subjects were to cut and the more severe their
cutting was. Sexual abuse victims were most likely of all to cut. They
summarize, ...

neglect [was] the most powerful predictor of self-destructive behavior. This
implies that although childhood trauma contributes heavily to the initiation
of self-destructive behavior, lack of secure attachments maintains it.
Those ... who could not remember feeling special or loved by anyone as
children were least able to ...control their self-destructive behavior.

In this same paper, van der Kolk et al. note that dissociation and frequency
of dissociative experiences appear to be related to the presence of
self-injurious behavior. Dissociation in adulthood has also been positively
linked to abuse, neglect, or trauma as a child.

More support for the theory that physical or sexual abuse or trauma is an
important antecedent to this behavior comes from a 1989 article in the
American Journal of Psychiatry. Greenspan and Samuel present three
cases in which women who seemed to have no prior psychopathology
presented as self-cutters following a traumatic rape.

Invalidation independent of abuse

Although sexual and physical abuse and neglect can seemingly precipitate
self-injurious behavior, the converse does not hold: many of those who
hurt themselves have suffered no childhood abuse. A 1994 study by
Zweig-Frank et al. showed no relationship at all between abuse,
dissociation, and self-injury among patients diagnosed with borderline
personality disorder.

A followup study by Brodsky, et al. (1995) also showed that abuse as a
child is not a marker for dissociation and self-injury as an adult. Because of
these and other studies as well as personal observations, it's become
obvious to me that there is some basic characteristic present in people
who self-injure that is not present in those who don't, and that the factor is
something more subtle than abuse as a child. Reading Linehan's work
provides a good idea of what the factor is.

Linehan (1993a) talks about people who SI having grown up in "invalidating
environments." While an abusive home certainly qualifies as invalidating,
so do other, "normal," situations. She says:

An invalidating environment is one in which communication of private
experiences is met by erratic, inappropriate, or extreme responses. In
other words, the expression of private experiences is not validated;
instead it is often punished and/or trivialized. the experience of painful
emotions [is] disregarded. The individual's interpretations of her own
behavior, including the experience of the intents and motivations of the
behavior, are dismissed...

Invalidation has two primary characteristics. First, it tells the individual that
she is wrong in both her description and her analyses of her own
experiences, particularly in her views of what is causing her own emotions,
beliefs, and actions. Second, it attributes her experiences to socially
unacceptable characteristics or personality traits.

This invalidation can take many forms:

"You're angry but you just won't admit it."
"You say no but you mean yes, I know."
"You really did do (something you in truth hadn't). Stop lying."
"You're being hypersensitive."
"You're just lazy." "
I won't let you manipulate me like that."
"Cheer up. Snap out of it. You can get over this."
"If you'd just look on the bright side and stop being a pessimist..."
"You're just not trying hard enough."
"I'll give you something to cry about!"

Everyone experiences invalidations like these at some time or another, but
for people brought up in invalidating environments, these messages are
constantly received. Parents may mean well but be too uncomfortable with
negative emotion to allow their children to express it, and the result is
unintentional invalidation. Chronic invalidation can lead to almost
subconscious self-invalidation and self-distrust, and to the "I never
mattered" feelings van der Kolk et al. describe.


Then there was a section on "Biological Considerations and Neurochemistry"

It has been demonstrated (Carlson, 1986) that reduced levels of serotonin
lead to increased aggressive behavior in mice. In this study, serotonin
inhibitors produced increased aggression and serotonin exciters
decreased aggression in mice. Since serotonin levels have also been
linked to depression, and depression has been positively identified as one
of the long-term consequences of childhood physical abuse
(Malinosky-Rummell and Hansen, 1993), this could explain why
self-injurious behaviors are seen more frequently among those abused as
children than among the general population (Malinosky-Rummel and
Hansen, 1993).

Then some more chemical stuff and then this paragraph

When these results are considered in light of work such as that by Stoff et
al. (1987) and Birmaher et al. (1990), which links reduced numbers of
platelet imipramine binding sites to impulsivity and aggression, it appears
that the most appropriate classification for self-injurious behavior might be
as an impulse-control disorder similar to trichotillomania, kleptomania, or
compulsive gambling.

Comparing cutting to stealing or gambling and calling it a "disorder" seems pretty useless, but typical of those in the psychiatry profession.

Later the article says this, sort of an chicken and egg question:

It is not clear whether these abnormalities are caused by the
trauma/abuse/invalidating experiences or whether some individuals with
these kinds of brain abnormalities have traumatic life experiences that
prevent their learning effective ways to cope with distress and that cause
them to feel they have little control over what happens in their lives and
subsequently resort to self-injury as a way of coping.

Then the article continues....


Knowing when to stop -- pain doesn't seem to be a factor

Most of those who self-mutilate can't quite explain it, but they know when to
stop a session. After a certain amount of injury, the need is somehow
satisfied and the abuser feels peaceful, calm, soothed. Only 10% of
respondents to Conterio and Favazza's 1986 survey reported feeling
"great pain"; 23 percent reported moderate pain and 67% reported feeling
little or no pain at all. Naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opiods
(including endorphins, the body's natural painkillers), was given to
self-mutilators in one study but did not prove effective (see Richardson
and Zaleski, 1986).

These findings are intriguing in light of Haines et al. (1995), a study that
found that reduction of psychophysiological tension may be the primary
purpose of self-injury. It may be that when a certain level of physiological
calm is reached, the self-injurer no longer feels an urgent need to inflict
harm on his/her body. The lack of pain may be due to dissociation in some
self-injurers, and to the way in which self-injury serves as a focusing
behavior for others.

Behavioralist explanations

NOTE: most of this applies mainly to stereotypical self-injury, such as that
seen in retarded and autistic clients.

Much work has been done in behavioral psychology in an attempt to
explain the etiology of self-injurious behavior. In a 1990 review, Belfiore
and Dattilio examine three possible explanations. They quote Phillips and
Muzaffer (1961) in describing self-injury as "measures carried out by an
individual upon him/herself which tend to 'cut off, to remove, to maim, to
destroy, to render imperfect' some part of the body."

This study also found that frequency of self-injury was higher in females
but severity tended to be more extreme in males. Belfiore and Dattilio also
point out that the terms "self-injury" and "self-mutilation" are deceiving; the
description given above does not speak to the intent of the behavior.

Operant Conditioning

It should be noted that explanations involving operant conditioning are
generally more useful when dealing with stereotypic self-injury and less
useful with episodic/repetitive behavior.

Two paradigms are put forth by those who wish to explain self-injury in
terms of operant conditioning. One is that individuals who self-injure are
positively reinforced by getting attention and thus tend to repeat the
self-harming acts. Another implication of this theory is that the sensory
stimulation associated with self-harm could serve as a positive reinforcer
and thus a stimulus for further self-abuse.

The other posits that individuals self-injure in order to remove some
aversive stimulus or unpleasant condition (emotional, physical, whatever).
This negative reinforcement paradigm is supported by research showing
that intensity of self-injury can be increased by increasing the "demand" of
a situation. In effect, self-harm is a way to escape otherwise intolerable
emotional pain.

Sensory Contingencies

One hypothesis long held has been that self-injurers are attempting to
mediate levels of sensory arousal. Self-injury can increase sensory
arousal (many respondents to the internet survey said it made them feel
more real) or decrease it by masking sensory input that is even more
distressing than the self-harm. This seems related to what Haines and
Williams (1997) found: self-injury provides a quick and dramatic release of
physiological tension/arousal. Cataldo and Harris (1982) concluded that
theories of arousal, though satisfying in their parsimony, need to take into
consideration biological bases of these factors.

More Related Information

Study of Patients Who Exhibited Cutting Behavior and Suicidality
Depression: Suicide and Self Injury
Psychological Characteristics Common in Self-Injurers
Depression is Common in People Who Self-Injure: Therapist's Comments
Cutting: Self Mutilating to Release Emotional Stress
Self Mutilation: Self-Injurers Often Suffered Sexual or Emotional Abuse
Teen-Depression Treatment Teaches Kids to Handle Anxiety
Can Caviar Cure Depression? Fishing for Health
Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing to Treat PTSD
Coping with Feelings and Thoughts of Suicide - Transcript

For the most comprehensive information about Depression and
Treatment, visit our Depression Community Center at


My page on invalidation