Demi Lovato has entered treatment, reportedly for cutting. 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.
However, other self-injurious behaviors can include:
- Picking at skin
- Hair pulling (trichotillomania)
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 who 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."
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.