Why girls cut themselves

A new study searches for a link between strained mother-daughter relationships and self-harm.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published March 7, 2008 8:25PM (EST)

I'm calling it now. Coverage of a new study on the correlation between negative mother-daughter relationships and girls' self-cutting will roughly -- and incorrectly -- follow this narrative: Adolescent girls can blame their passive-aggressive, overinvolved and, God, like, totally annoying moms for one more thing, self-mutilation.

Researchers from the New University of Washington surveyed 18 adolescent girls who are frequent cutters, 19 girls with no history of self-harm and the mothers of all 37 girls. They also had the girls talk for 10 minutes about a source of conflict with their mothers, before having blood drawn to test their serotonin levels. The researchers found that low levels of serotonin and a strained mother-daughter relationship account for "64 percent of the difference among adolescents, primarily girls, who engage in self-harming behaviors and those who do not," according to Science Daily.

But beware of misreporting: The study actually found a weak correlation between mother-daughter conflict and self-mutilation; there was a stronger link between serotonin levels and cutting. "Most people think in terms of biology or environment rather than biology and environment working together," said Theodore Beauchaine, the study's coauthor. "Having a low level of serotonin is a biological vulnerability for self-harming behavior and that vulnerability increases remarkably when it is paired with maternal conflict."

Interesting as these findings are, here's an obvious question: Why were girls' relationships with their mothers, rather than their fathers, chosen? Science Daily explains that it's because "research has shown that the relationship between girls and mothers is usually closer than it is between daughters and fathers." Doesn't that seem an argument for also studying father-daughter relationships in connection to cutting?

Tracy Clark-Flory

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