Is Your Teen Cutting? Here’s Help.

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At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we care deeply about each of our patients and do whatever we can to help them grow up happy and healthy. When we discover (or suspect) that a patient is injuring herself/himself, we take it very seriously. We immediately evaluate the individual, and if need be, refer her/him to a mental health professional. We also involve the patient’s family so that together, we can address and try to stop the self-harming behavior.

Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP

To help all of us better understand what causes teens to deliberately hurt themselves, a recent NY Times article (“Getting a Handle on Self-Harm”) examined self-injurious behavior, particularly among adolescent girls. Self-harm episodes typically begin in early adolescence and involve the intentional destruction of body tissue in the absence of an intent to die, i.e. they are not suicide attempts. For about 20% of people who engage in self-harm, it becomes a full-blown addiction, as powerful as an opiate habit.

Cutting and other forms of self-injury are on the rise among adolescents

According to the NYT article, “about 1 in 5 adolescents report having harmed themselves to soothe emotional pain at least once, according to a review of three dozen surveys in nearly a dozen countries, including the United States, Canada and Britain.” Alarmingly, self-harm is the strongest risk factor for subsequent suicide, a study in The Lancet reports.

Self-harm behaviors commonly involve skin cutting, burning and severe scratching. Teens who engage in these behaviors report doing them as often as several times a day, either to dissipate negative emotions or to feel something (pain) rather than nothing (numbness). Explains Blue, a 16-year-old high school student in the New York area, “it’s the only way you know to deal with intense insecurities, or anger at yourself. Or you’re so numb as a result of depression, you can’t feel anything — and this is one thing you can feel.”

Often, teens who self-harm suffer from psychiatric disorders such as anxiety or depression

In my practice, I am definitely seeing more patients, especially young adolescents, with anxiety and depression. I know we hear this all the time, but from what I see, I truly do believe this has a lot to do with social media and our cultural shift away from direct interpersonal relationships, in which children used to engage face-to-face with their peers.

Now, rather than actually speaking with each other, our tweens and teens are bombarded everyday with images of their friends going out, having fun and looking great. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

Two talk therapies are proving to be effective for breaking the habit of self-harm

One therapy that is showing positive results is called dialectical behavior therapy, or D.B.T., developed by Marsha Linehan, a psychologist at the University of Washington. “Through one-on-one and group therapy sessions, people who injure themselves learn a series of coping skills when experiencing dark emotions,” the NYT article says. “These skills include mindfulness techniques and opposite action, in which patients act opposite to the way they feel in order to alter the underlying distress.”

Another version of talk therapy, called cognitive behavior therapy, or C.B.T., can be adapted to help people who habitually self-harm. The NYT reports that “both strategies are more likely to be helpful when driven by the person in pain, a recent review found.”

Hurting? Get free help for self-harm now.

If you are hurting yourself, or are contemplating it, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 741741. The Crisis Text Line is free, 24/7 support, connecting people in crisis to trained Crisis Counselors. Their first priority is helping people in pain create a plan to stay safe and healthy.

How you can help your teen and tween

Within our families and as a society as a whole, it is imperative that we start to examine this trend of social media-induced isolation and feelings of low self-worth. Do we really want our friendships and relationships to be whittled down to a quick text, Instagram post or 140 character tweet?

As parents, we can begin to have these discussion with our children and encourage them to call their friends rather than text them, or put their phones down completely and sit around the dinner table together as a family. Another suggestion: have family game night and invite a friend. The good news is that there are solutions, and together, we can find them.

Read our blogs on the following teen issues

Helpful articles we recommend

At any age, count on us for vital information to help you raise happy, healthy kids

You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Whether you’re raising teenagers, adolescents, toddlers or newborns, we’ve got years of experience helping parents take care of their children and we’re ready to help you with yours. Please come in and see us.

Concerned that your child may be intentionally injuring herself/himself? Come talk to us.

If you’ve seen signs that your teen or tween is cutting, burning, bruising, scratching or conducting other forms of self-harm (including anorexia or bulimia), please bring her/him in to see one of our Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatricians right away. We’ll sit down with you and your child and together, try to determine what might be causing the behavior, and together, come up with workable solutions. We also may refer your child to a mental health specialist. Above all, our #1 goal is to do whatever we can to help your child become as healthy as possible, both physically and emotionally. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.Make an appt

By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, Lead Pediatric Physician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners

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About the Author: ML Ball