Cutting It Too Close
If you have a teen girl at home you’ve probably already seen the #cut4Zayn idiocy. It’s not an original idea; a few months ago, there was a #cut4bieber tag trending. I’d like to be facetious here and say, “Well, you can’t expect great maturity from daft Beliebers,” but as a mother who has witnessed this teen-cutting trend first hand, frankly, it gives me Angry Simon Cowell Face.
Self-harm, cutting, self-injury, is an old, cyclical trend. Some of us have had siblings, friends, distant cousins who displayed self-harming behaviours. Some of us may have had these episodes ourselves. Self-harm manifests in many ways, from everyday slapping your head to getting your face pierced. A friend used to cut her thigh. Another one would rip the skin off the tips of her fingers with a compass. A boy I knew would unscrew the blade from his pencil sharpener and rub it along his thumb until the blood ran.
Self-injurers, as vulnerable as they seem, very rarely are suicidal. No one asked the kids we knew if they were depressed. As adults, are they okay now? An unequivocal yes. But it wasn’t healthy behaviour then, and it’s not now.
When Mahima* came home from school on Thursday evening, her mother noticed a fine but deep cut on her left forearm. She asked her daughter what it was. Her daughter shrugged and said her wooden desk had an exposed nail. She’d cut herself—”no biggie.” Then, shrinking from her mother’s fussing, Mahima dumped her school bag, walked into her room, and told her mum she needed to be on her phone for a while to discuss school projects on Whatsapp with her friends.
Mahima had been given a phone, like most of her contemporaries, at 11, when she started being dropped off to classes or playdates on her own. The phone was for emergencies and for keeping track of her whereabouts. In just a year, however, Mahima was lost in her phone most of the time. Her mother, misguidedly believing her child was entitled to some privacy, never looked at it. (There was also a weird security lock that involved doodling.) Mahima’s grades were good, her appetite was sound. Sure, she was a little quiet—but wasn’t she almost a teen? Still, mum told Mahima that phone-privileges did not include a security code. Mahima deactivated it. Mahima was a good girl.
On Friday morning, while Mahima was at school, grimacing at herself, Mahima’s mum went through her daughter’s phone. There were pictures of deep cuts. Not just Mahima’s but a few of her close friends and others the mum didn’t even know.
When Mahima walked in from school that evening, she had four new deep cuts.
Mahima’s mum decided to postpone the panic and breathed deeply. She told Mahima that, as a start, she was taking away Mahima’s phone for a month. Then, they were going to talk.
Several recent articles online are taking the resurgence of this trend quite seriously. The term ’emotional illiteracy’ is used to describe young individuals who are especially vulnerable to their feelings but have no way of identifying, acknowledging or coping with them. Cutting makes them feel ‘in control.’
Mahima’s mum, like me, had known kids in school who cut themselves. They weren’t classified as depressed, distressed or volatile. It was part teenage angst, part attention-drawing—more ‘badass’ posturing than a cry for help. She was relieved when, once they started talking, her daughter suddenly, violently broke down. “I’m not depressed mum, I swear. There’s nothing going on with me. Everything is fine. Take that damn phone away from me. I hate it. I’m stuck in it. I’m sorry, this is the stupidest thing I have ever done.”
The school counselors called later that evening. The cutting was a trend, they said, that had circumnavigated the globe, reaching several Mumbai schools via social media. Mahima’s mum told them what her daughter had said, but made an appointment to meet the counsellors anyway. The counselors also told her they had seen as much as a 50 percent dip in attention spans among Mahima’s peers in the last two years. Since they got their phones.
The month her daughter was grounded without a phone, Mahima’s mum said, was the month she was given her daughter back emotionally. “Instantly, it was like a physical weight was lifted off of her. Her face opened up. She began to interact with her extended family. She giggled. She was herself again.” The scars on her arm healed.
A peer, more discreet with her (upper-thigh) cutting, when confronted by the school’s concerned and suspicious counselors, told them her cat scratched her. This child had also displayed other dangerous behaviours, including meeting in person with strangers from Facebook. When a personal attempt at reaching out failed, Mahima’s mum ‘ratted’ on her to the counselors. It wasn’t worth keeping quiet about.
Mahima got off lightly. Being surrounded by people, at home and school, who were deeply and consciously invested in her wellbeing, resulted in timely intervention. It’s okay if you can’t process all your feelings when you’re a teen, they told her. That’s what emotional development is about. Your frontal cortex won’t be grown up until you are in your twenties.
In some ways, phones and social media have changed what used to be a loner, weird kid thing into some sort of peer ritual. There will be more of these instances. We, the parents, will need to decipher and differentiate between what is a phase and what could be permanently damaging. Either way, Mahima’s mum is clear we need to separate our kids’ privileges from their privacy for their own protection. As she said, “It looks like she’s in her room on the phone. But actually, she’s out in the world, through that screen. She’s my slightly grumpy little girl and she’s all alone.”
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of a minor.