Teen cutting, self-mutilations reveal another face of violence

By Kathleen Ryan
Special to The CS&T

Many young people turn to violence by bullying or joining gangs. But for an increasing number of young people – in particular young girls – violence and anger turn inward in the form of self-mutilation.

Different forms of self-mutilation include cutting, burning, body piercing and tattoos. Cutting is very common, especially during what Peter Kleponis, assistant director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in Conshohocken, calls the “launching years” between the ages of 15 and 25.

“They become overwhelmed in their lives, which leads to anxiety which leads to anger,” Kleponis said. “They need to release all of this pent-up anger. Self-mutilation lets out all of the stress and anxiety they are looking to relieve but do not know how to articulate.”

While more girls tend to cut than boys, teen cutting is not gender-specific. Most start between the ages of 15 and 19, on an impulse, when emotions become extreme and difficult to handle.

The act involves using a razor to cut oneself, often on the wrists, arms, legs, stomach or other areas of the body that can be easily hidden. The cutting can leave permanent scars, and while most teen cutters are not set on suicide, they can sometimes cut too deep or cut an artery.

“The root causes of these internalizations are anxiety and anger. These adolescents’ lives become so chaotic, they feel they have no control,” Kleponis said. When teens feel little or no control in some aspects of their lives they try to control the things they can – their own bodies.

The same internalizations propel eating disorders among the young. The two most predominant disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia is defined as self-starvation and excessive weight loss, while bulimia is a cycle of binge eating followed by forced-vomiting or laxative use to mitigate the effects of the binging.

Both are serious and potentially life threatening disorders from which the National Eating Disorder Association estimates that 10 million women and 1 million men in the United States suffer.

One of the differences between self-mutilation and eating disorders is that the latter “is a subconscious thing,” Kleponis said.

Both manifestations of internalized anger can be isolating. In the treatment of self-mutilation the key is to find where the stress and anger are coming from. Often times, there is a lot of pain and woundedness leading to cutting – whether they stem from issues at home such as an alcoholic parent or a spanorce, or trouble with friends and bullying.

“Someone else is hurting them and they punish themselves,” Kleponis said about teen cutters. “You don’t see kids from healthy homes self-mutilating.”

Treatment for eating disorders involves helping teens to understand their need for control and to identify the chaos that makes them feel out of control.

Kleponis believes that bringing faith into the treatment of teens who self-mutilate and/or suffer from eating disorders is very important.

“Someone in a chaotic environment with control issues needs to know there is a God out there. He can help them get grounded again. He is their rock and can be a huge help in the healing process,” he said.

Kathleen Ryan is a member of Annunciation Parish in Havertown.