A few days ago, I found out that my fifteen-year-old daughter got some tattoos. For some time, she has had a rebellious attitude…. She has been cutting her arms, and I don’t know what to do nor how to discipline her. I have talked with her many times. I have counseled her and dedicated time to her, but this situation has gotten the best of me.

Dear Friend,

You are right to be concerned about your daughter, but her rebellious attitude and new tattoos are not the most serious of her problems. The behavior that you describe as cutting demands a response that is much more urgent.

People who cut themselves (normally teenagers and young adults) may do it to provide relief from severe distress or anxiety. The physical pain is a distraction from their painful emotions. Or they may cut themselves in order to feel something when they are emotionally empty or numb. Cutting, or other forms of self-injury such as burning or head banging, may be ways to express externally what the person feels on the inside, or they can be the person’s way to try and punish herself for faults or mistakes.

No matter why your daughter is cutting herself, she needs to see her medical doctor immediately. Only a medical doctor is qualified to diagnose her problems. There may be an imbalance of chemicals in her brain requiring medication, or she may need another type of treatment. Once the cutting is resolved, the other issues may also improve.

However, a certain amount of rebelliousness is to be expected from most teenagers. They are no longer children, but they are not yet adults either. Their brains are not yet fully developed, making it difficult for them to control their impulses and make wise choices. Knowing this, parents want to protect them from danger and from unwise decisions, but the teenagers bristle at what they consider to be overprotectiveness, and they long for independence. Wise parents seek to find a balance between protecting them and letting them spread their wings. They know that it is normal for teenagers to be working toward independence, and that it is not a personal affront to the parents.

The most effective way that parents teach is by example. If parents want their child to be honest, reliable, and respectful, they must model those traits in relationships outside and inside the home. Parents respect their children by listening to them without interrupting, thus validating their right to have their own feelings (even if those feelings seem negative), and by letting each child know that the rules and the consequences will not change because of a parent’s anger or because of a child’s frustration.

Wise parents teach, by their own example, that God loves us and has a plan for our lives that is revealed to us in the Bible. When children learn of God’s love and care for them, and when they are taught the difference between right and wrong in accordance with Biblical values, the parents can trust that God will influence their children through their own conscience. And when their children are passing through a difficult time, as your daughter is right now, those parents know that God can be depended upon to help and guide.

We wish you the best,