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Recent Letter to the ElderWisdomCircle™

FAMILY: Worried My Little Sister Is Cutting Herself
Letter #: 400176
Category: Family

Original Letter

Hi, my name is Taylor. I am 22 years old and live in Texas. I have custody of my 16-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister. My other brother, age 19, also lives with us. Our mother passed away almost ten years ago. She had been doing chemotherapy for a while and couldn't fight off a simple lung infection. Our father didn't handle it very well and began abusing alcohol to cope with the loss, which made him violent and unpredictable. He was killed while driving drunk a little more than two years ago. My youngest two siblings were placed in foster care until I turned 21 and was old enough to file for custody as a foster parent.

Obviously this is a lot to deal with for any kid, and my brothers seem to be coping well enough... I am worried about my sister, though. I have no idea how to talk to her, and she's become so withdrawn lately that I don't have much hope she will come to me. This morning I noticed some marks on the inside of her arm, near her elbow. When I asked what had happened, her reaction was unusual... flustered, maybe. When I got a closer look, I saw that they were abrasions of different ages, some fresh, some scarred and some almost healed. She got very panicked and left quickly for school. After she left, I found a little kit with razor blades and a shard of glass wrapped in a bloodstained washcloth hidden under the bathroom sink. I left the bundle on her bed (minus the razors and glass) for her to find when she returned and left for work. I returned to find her bedroom door locked, and she has not come out since. I don't know what to do to help her...

Elder Response

I want to say first of all, I'm so very sorry for the loss of your parents, Taylor, and tell you how much I admire you for keeping your family together at such a young age.  You have all been through very difficult times and I think perhaps it's inevitable that it will show up more in some ways in your younger sister.   Thirteen is a such difficult age - not a child and not yet an adult, plus all the hormonal changes and emotional ups and downs of puberty.

Unfortunately, self harm has become a very common way for young people to handle stress and negative emotions. We get a lot of letters about it.  The theory is that cutting focuses feelings on the physical pain and provides some temporary relief from the emotional pain. In actual fact, when teenagers cut, the body produces a substance called endorphins, which acts sort of like a drug to raise the spirits.   There are many other, less destructive ways to produce these endorphins - exercise is one, dancing, listening to favorite music, even eating chocolate!!!  

There is a lot of information you can access on the internet about cutting.  One website that may help your sister find other ways to deal with whatever emotional pain or stress she is experiencing is www.kidshealth.org.  If she clicks on the teen site and types  'cutting' in the search box she'll find lots of information about other ways to deal with her emotions. You may want to check it out for her first.  Given that she has lost both parents and spent some time in a foster home, I'm sure she is dealing with a lot of difficult feelings, no matter how caring and wonderful a sister you may be.   Taylor, I understand that you are probably shocked, and a bit scared, but I hope you don't think this is any reflection on the way you are caring for your siblings. Even young people with two parents and a so-called 'traditional' family life use self harm as a 'coping' strategy. 

It may be that your sister needs some counseling.   If you have a family doctor, you could ask him for a referral to a youth  counselor for her.  If finances are a problem, most communities have free counseling available - try googling 'free/low cost counseling' and the name of your town or city, or call the United Way 211 information line for a referral.  You could also talk to her school counselor, or, if you attend a place of worship,  to your pastor for advice.

I think the best thing you can do for her Taylor, is to let her know that you're a available to listen without judgement any time she needs to talk. It's hard for some young people to verbalize their feelings, but it does help if they can talk about what is troubling them instead of internalizing their emotions. That's why counseling can be helpful - sometimes it's easier to talk to a stranger!  

Please feel free to write back if you want to talk more.  I wonder who is supporting you in keeping your family together -  i hope you have friends and other family members you can turn to.  You've been through very traumatic times and it can't always be easy to be the responsible grown-up at twenty two. I truly admire your courage and dedication. We're always here to listen and to help if we can - my very best wishes to you, Taylor.

Best Regards,



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