The help desk: 'My 14-year-old daughter is cutting herself'

  • @louisa_saunders

Q. I've discovered that my 14-year-old daughter has been cutting herself. She'd hidden it from me and I found out only when her head of year contacted me. She has tiny cuts on her forearms, some of which look quite old. When I asked her about it, she said she didn't know why she did it and that she doesn't want to talk about it but doesn't think she'll do it again.

But we went to the GP, who has referred her to a psychiatrist and says they might suggest family therapy. Her father (who doesn't live with us) says she's just attention-seeking and refuses to come with us. I don't know what to do. I used to get on well with her but now we always seem to be rowing, about her behaviour (she once ended up in A&E after drinking vodka), her bedroom, her terrible rudeness – everything, really. I feel a failure, but at the same time I wonder whether my husband is right. My elder daughter (now 24) never had problems like this.

A. I also have an elder daughter, a 19-year-old veteran of teenage angst, who recently said to me that everything teenage girls do is a means of seeking attention – from serial hair-dyeing to giving blowjobs in the local skate park. She wasn't being callous, but making the point that girls at this difficult age often don't know how to ask for help with their distress.

Those who self-harm say it makes them feel alive when they feel numb, or significant when they feel worthless. That it is a distress signal, rather than, say, a fashion statement or a form of manipulation as some would have it, is manifest. Cutting is just one form of self-harm; excessive drinking and self-starvation are others.

It's easy to forget that girls of this age are children. They might look and even feel grown-up but they still have a child's need for security, affection and approval. At the same time, they often seem to push these things away as they flaunt their separateness. So don't feel a failure, but do soak up all the professional help you can get. Family therapy is a great way to get to the bottom of what's on your daughter's mind and help you talk to each other. Her father doesn't have to attend.

Meanwhile, you need to find ways to lavish affection on your spiky daughter. It will take two to stop the rows, but start by privately declaring an amnesty on the small stuff – clothes on the floor, soggy towels, general crabbiness – so that she isn't constantly in the doghouse. Try not to take these things personally. Connect with her in whatever ways you can. There'll be something you're both interested in – make time to do that together. Pay her compliments; reward good behaviour; get to know her friends; take an interest in her school work (and not just whether it's done). Just like when she was little, really.

Your aim is to make her home life a refuge rather than yet another challenge, and yourself her cheerleader in a scarily judgemental world. You've done this before with your elder daughter, and successfully, by the sound of it. Twenty-four years into parenthood, you're not off the hook yet.

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