Gifted Kids Who Cut
By Marlo Payne Thurman, M.S.
In my practice, where I have specialized in working with highly intelligent children, I have seen a lot of kids who cut themselves. Over the years I have gained valuable insights that have helped me understand cutting behaviors and enabled me to offer appropriate supports to young people for whom cutting has become a method of coping.
To understand gifted kids who cut, we must first understand the evolution of cutting behavior. In today’s popular culture, cutting is merely the “new trend” in a long human history of self-mutilation. While we see this as abnormal, and we clearly should be concerned, every culture in human history records methods of self-inflicted pain as a path to altering one’s mental state. Medical research shows that physical pain stimulates the release of certain endorphins which calm the nervous system, clear the mind, and create a state of euphoria. In recent decades, body piercing, tattoos, bulimia, and even anorexia stand out as popular methods of seeking endorphin release. So, in my professional experience, cutting behavior is generally not an attempt at suicide. In fact, most kids who cut keep their “evidence” secret, and few want to die or even seriously hurt themselves.
Cutting behavior usually develops over time. Most cutters have a history of either biting themselves, head banging, picking their scabs, hair pulling, pricking or scratching themselves with pins, or nicking themselves with razors. For our gifted kids who self-mutilate, cutting seems to be a habituated response to deal with the intense emotional and cognitive overload. Almost all cutters will say that cutting, while it hurts some, actually feels good. Once the endorphin release occurs, cutters report that they feel calmer, are more in control, and have a clearer mind. Many also say that they are better able to sleep after a cutting episode. The bad news for cutters and their families is that the release of endorphins that comes from cutting feels so good that the cutter can easily fall into the habit of cutting. Additionally, for some, the self-inflicted pain must become more severe for the endorphin reaction to occur.
So how do we help? I have discovered that the starting point for many of these kids is in helping them find a way to get fully and deeply rested. For some, that may mean just taking a few days off of school every few weeks, with teacher support. For others, it may mean making changes in school and work schedules, academic course loads, leisure activities, and even sleep habits.
From there, counseling and medical support is often a necessary next step to help them get healthy. Kids who self-mutilate are usually depleted in many ways. The majority of my clients who opt for cutting behavior, when appropriately evaluated, are found to be suffering from adrenal fatigue. Because gifted kids spend so much just filtering their “noisy” world, I believe they have learned to rely heavily on their reserve fuel (the adrenal system) for everyday functioning. With that in mind, addressing nutrition, detoxification, and allergies, and providing breath-response training come next. I then expect all of my clients to engage in some form of physical exercise to naturally enhance their endorphins.
Advocacy with the school is often necessary as well. Frequently, the expectations, views, and available supports at school are inappropriate for gifted kids, especially if they also have some twice-exceptionality.
Finally, I use cognitive therapy and continued advocacy at school as well as advocacy at home to help kids and their teachers and parents to understand cognitive fatigue and its impact on energy and mental health.
These kids can learn to better understand their stressors, manage their adrenal systems, deal with the emotional intensities of being gifted, and find healthy ways to trigger their “feel good” endorphins. In time, and with proper help, kids who cut do “outgrow” their cutting behaviors.
*For more information on adrenal fatigue, see “Too Tired! Energy and Wellness in 2e Children, Parts 1 and 2” in the November, 2009, and January, 2010, issues of 2e Newsletter.
Marlo Payne Thurman, M.S., is a school psychologist, education consultant, and member of the 2e Newsletter Editorial Advisory Board. She specializes in assessment, advocacy, cognitive training, sensory and behavior support, and socio-emotional coaching for individuals from around the country who are gifted yet asynchronous. Marlo is the founder of the Brideun Learning Communities designed as a play-based, therapeutic school model for twice-exceptional children. She now operates 2E Consulting Service and is the Executive Director for the US College Autism Project. Marlo trains educators and professional around the globe to better meet the needs of twice-exceptional individuals.
Marlo Payne Thurman is a private consultant specializing in identifying and meeting the needs of children who are gifted, yet asynchronous in their development. Marlo's clients circle the globe. For more information, contact Marlo directly: firstname.lastname@example.org