I understand that those who hurt themselves are experiencing “rage turned inward.” But why do they make things worse by continually damaging their own bodies?
Here is an oversimplified explanation that is, nonetheless, useful. Girls who cut themselves lack the ability to regulate the anxiety, painful memories, and “bad feelings” that percolate inside. When a girl injures herself, endorphins are released in the brain that produce a sense of pleasure and well-being. The experience is very temporary, but these girls are desperate for even momentary relief. That comes closest to explaining the behavior.
There is one more thing that parents should know. At the risk of being too technical, cutters and other self-mutilators sometimes have a condition called borderline personality disorder.1 It is characterized by eating disorders, emotional instability, difficulty maintaining friendships, impulsivity, and a high incidence of suicide or attempted suicide, especially among adolescent females and young women. According to one study, 87 percent of the girls in treatment had made at least one suicide attempt.2 People with borderline personality disorder are also susceptible to addictive behavior, especially to drugs and alcohol.3
Finally, adolescents have lower levels of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter in the brain. In other words, the behavior that “makes no sense” to onlookers is not just an emotional syndrome. It is a chemical and a psychological disorder.
1. “Borderline Personality Disorder: A Brief Overview That Focuses on the Symptoms, Treatments, and Research Findings”; see http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/borderline-personality-disorder-fact-sheet/index.shtml.
2. Anthony Bateman, F.R.C. Psych., and Peter Fonagy, Ph.D., F.B.A., “8-Year Follow-Up of Patients Treated for Borderline Personality Disorder: Mentalization-Based Treatment versus Treatment as Usual,” American Journal of Psychiatry 165 (2008): 631–638.
3. “Borderline Personality Disorder.”