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Mother Ponders How To Deal with Child’s Cutting

A mother of a Loudoun County high-school student examines her reaction to the problem.

She sat alone in the middle of the gray overstuffed couch and held tightly to her daughter’s teddy bear.

"What’s a mother do?" she asked. "My little girl has razor-blade marks on her wrist and her thigh. I didn’t have any idea this was happening."

The mother, Carolyn, was unaware of her daughter’s self-mutilation, because Madison had become a master of hiding her secret. She had worn long-sleeved shirts and pants, even in the summer. When she occasionally donned a sleeveless shirt, she wore a trendy terry cloth wrist band, bangle bracelets or an ACE bandage to mask the injuries.

The latter disguise required an explanation. "I strained my wrist again during practice," she would say. A soccer player, she usually wore her long, strawberry blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail. Madison’s quick smile, pretty face and slim figure provided no clue to the troubles that drove her to self-mutilation.

CAROLYN, WHO is withholding her actual name to protect her daughter’s identity, shared how she dealt with the knowledge that her daughter was using razor blades, knives and scissors on herself. "First of all, I didn’t handle it well," she said. "I was upset, angry and confused."

Questions plagued her. "I hate to say it, but it was all about me," she said. "I remember asking myself, 'How could I have been fooled for so long? Why is she doing this? Is she trying to hurt me? Doesn’t she realize how much pain she is causing me? Doesn’t she care?'"

Then there was the blaming. Carolyn worked at a department store, making $8 an hour. "We don’t have enough money to pay the utilities. We’re lucky to have food in our cupboards. How many times have I heard Madison complain, ‘I’m so tired of being poor. I’m so tired of having no food in the house.’"

Forget the extras that most teenagers crave. Madison’s friends could go to the movies and shop at the mall any time.

Madison had been cutting herself for three years, before a call brought the issue out in the open last April. One of her classmates contacted the high-school guidance counselor, saying she was worried about her friend. The counselor called Carolyn, who grabbed her car keys, told her boss she had an emergency and drove to school.

"I was stunned," Carolyn recalled. "I felt so helpless. I still do."

Carolyn said her first instinct was to shake Madison until she woke up to the reality of what she was doing to herself. Knowing that was not the answer, however, she looked for other solutions. She vowed to spend more time with her daughter. Maybe if she could make everything in Madison’s world all right, then her daughter would stop. The guidance counselor advised Carolyn that even the best-intentioned moms cannot fix a situation like this by themselves. She suggested therapy for Madison, individually, and for the family.

Carolyn made several calls, trying to find a therapist experienced in adolescent issues. She said she contacted her insurance company first, to find out which psychiatrists or psychologists would be covered. She thought of calling Madison’s father, but she feared he might try to take their daughter away from her. "I mean, wouldn’t this constitute bad parenting?" she asked. "Couldn’t he use this in court to say I’m an unfit mother?"

Carolyn sought emotional support instead from her best friend. She signed Madison up for therapy and they participated in family sessions.

THE SITUATION seemed to improve, but Madison’s emotions were "up" one day and "down" the next. They were typical emotions for a teenager, but particularly worrisome if the teen cuts.

"Worry" became Carolyn’s constant companion. She tried using sarcasm to bully Madison. She recalled the verbal attacks, such as, "Oh, what are you going to do now? Are you going to go to your bedroom and cut yourself?" or "Oh, that’s just lovely Madison. Your scars are showing and they look terrible."

"Thanks Mom," was Madison’s only retort.

"Like I said, I didn’t handle things very well. I just wanted to find a way to fix it," Carolyn said.

While she searched for better ways to deal with the situation, Madison holed up in her bedroom and cut herself again and again.

Carolyn searched the Web for articles on the subject and borrowed library books. She tried talking to Madison about why she cut herself, but Madison’s response was a shrug and, "I don’t know."

"From everything I read, I knew we needed to communicate better. Well, all I can say is, ‘Easier said, than done,'" Carolyn conceded. "I’m doing everything I can to figure out how to help Madison, and then she decides she is not even going to talk to the therapist anymore. She said it isn’t helping."

Carolyn said she learned that her daughter fit two of the characteristics of girls who were likely to cut. Madison had compulsive tendencies and her parent’s divorce during elementary school was particularly traumatizing.

"In time, instead of blaming myself and getting angry at Madison, I have learned to look at why she is in so much emotional pain that she feels the need to cut herself," Carolyn said.

The literature has proved a helpful tool in Carolyn’s struggle to come to grips with what has happened to her daughter. She is looking for ways to persuade Madison to return to counseling. "Madison may not want to open up and talk to me or a therapist, but I’ll keep trying," Carolyn said. "Little by little, I’m going to get through. I’m going to help my little girl become the beautiful woman I know she’s destined to be. I won’t give up."