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Teens Who Cut: Expressing a Painful Message

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No matter what you may call it -- self-mutilation, cutting, self-harm, or self-injury, this type of intentional self-destructive behavior to one's own body is a serious concern.

depressed teen

Maggie Baumann, MA: According to Mental Health America, a national non-profit organization dedicated to helping people live mentally healthy lives, the most common method of self-injury is cutting.

However, other self-injurious behaviors can include:

• scratching
• burning
• biting
• bruising
• head banging
• picking at skin
• hair pulling (trichotillomania)
• hitting

Teens are particularly at risk of self-mutilation, with more girls affected than boys. Besides gender and age, other common factors seen with this behavior include people who have a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. It's also more prevalent in teens that have co-existing problems such as alcohol/drug abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorders. Additionally, it is seen in people who lack skills to express their emotions and are known to have a poor support network.

During an initial consultation with a new client in my practice as a therapist, one of the questions I always ask is about any self-harming behaviors, past or present. More than 50 percent of the eating disorder clients I see acknowledge a history of cutting behaviors. Once, a client showed me the inside of her forearm, where she had a four-inch scar displaying the words, "I am fat."

Is Cutting a Suicide Attempt?
Well, it can be. But in most cases, the intent of self-injury is rarely a suicide attempt. However, any self-injury attempt could accidently lead to death.

More often than not, self-injury is simply a mechanism for coping with extreme emotional distress. It can relieve intense feelings, anger, or anxiety. It can provide a way for someone to break emotional numbness or feel some sort of reality. Physically, self-mutilation is thought to release endorphins, neurotransmitters in the brain that cause a "high-like" feeling.

Warning Signs of Self-Injury
Teens who self-injure usually go to great lengths to cover up their injuries to prevent parents or other adults from discovering their secret. Some of the signs to look for include:

• Appearance of abnormal number of bruises, scars, or scratches
• Wearing pants or long sleeves in warm weather
• Finding razors or other sharp objects in your teen's room
• Low self-esteem and/or depression
• Difficulty expressing feelings in words
• Relationship conflicts
• Poor functioning at home, school, or work

Parent's Role in Treatment
Seek professional help for your teen from a trained family therapist. Anti-anxiety and/or antidepressants prescribed by a doctor may also be helpful in stabilizing the teen's mood.

As a parent, it's important not to shame your teen or show any signs of disgust at his/her behavior. Be accepting and compassionate that your teen is sending you a signal for help with an emotional issue he/she is not able to cope with in a healthy way. Open your lines of communication with your teen -- and participate in family therapy, if indicated.

next: Tonya Lewis Lee's Mission
6 comments so far | Post a comment now
Candy November 15, 2009, 1:20 PM

Thank you for this article. I’ve been harming myself since I was 10 (I’m now 21) and my parents responded by hitting, yelling, and just generally freaking out. Which OF COURSE is the first natural reaction to this behavior, but it just makes us more upset and it makes us feel like we should be punished more, or maybe that we can’t open up and tell you our real feelings. Calmly tend to the wounds you find, while asking them why they feel the need to do this to themselves, and go with them to the doctor to get a list of recommended therapists. It may not just be depression, but like in my case may be part of the early warning signs of a very serious thought disorder.

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