Do you frequently see marks on your teen’s skin? Do you have a suspicious feeling that your teen is cutting themselves? To help understand where the cutting stems from and what a parent can so to help prevent their teen from cutting themselves, I have interviewed therapist Cymbria Hess LMFT.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I’m a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. My foundation is in developmental psychology, so my therapy tends to focus on the individual’s development rather than pathology as a whole. I’ve spent the past 20 years in Cincinnati, OH, seeing teens, adults and couples through my private practice, Anderson Hills Psychotherapy. My husband and I also are the proud parents of a teenage son and daughter with every challenge and blessing that entails.”
Where does the cutting stem from?
“First, it’s critical that we distinguish between cutting and suicidal behavior. If there is ANY indication that a teen has suicidal intent, parents must seek help immediately. Two excellent resources are www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org and the free, confidential, 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255 (TALK.).”
“Otherwise, cutting can take many forms, from self-inflicted minor scratches and even rubbing the skin to the point of irritation, to deep cuts, burns or injuries. Oddly, cutting is based in an attempt to self-soothe, to create physical pain as a distraction from emotional distress or to prompt a feeling beyond apathy or ‘numbness.'”
“The average child who cuts is female and starts at about age 14. She probably struggles with low self-esteem and self-loathing, has trust issues, and is deeply worried about becoming alienated from friends and family. She may be highly anxious, have a hard time expressing herself, appear unusually sensitive to rejection, and be a high achiever in a particular area of her life. She’s probably likable but tough to get along with. Some studies connect cutting with a childhood history of physical or sexual abuse, but that’s not always the case. In my practice, I’ve found strong evidence that modeling from peers can also be a factor.”
What type of impact does a teen that cuts him or herself have on their overall life?
“Physically, damage is usually minimal; most self-injury is done to the skin’s surface and it’s seldom life-threatening. It may be a one-time event in which the child tries something she heard from someone else, and never tries again. However, if it becomes episodic, it can result in scarring.”
“The bigger danger is to the child’s long-term psychological development. Adolescence is a key period when we learn coping skills we’ll use the rest of our lives; if a teen latches onto cutting as her primary means of coping with stress, anger and pain, it will result in her never learning effective coping skills and potential interference with her social and psychological well-being. Adulthood often brings increasingly intense stress, which also can lead to escalation in the physical harm the individual is doing to herself.”
What can a parent do to help prevent their teen from cutting him or herself?
“Try to create a home atmosphere of parental confidence, warmth, nurturing and acceptance. Make your kids comfortable expressing themselves without fear of rejection or aggressive punishment. I’m not saying let them get away with everything or be their “buddy” ‘” just be open to acceptable differences.”
“Pay attention to your teen ‘” if you notice changes in eating, sleeping, dress, friends or activities, talk to her (same applies to males, although males cut less frequently than females)! In a non-judgmental way, share your observations and ask if she’s noticed the changes. Really listen to what she says and how she says it. Choose a time when there’s no pressure, maybe a car ride or bedtime. If you detect signs of stress in your child, offer suggestions on what she might do to deal with her feelings, such as talking to you or another trusted adult, exercise, journaling, drawing or writing. Help her find healthy outlets for adolescent pain, stress and fear.”
“Most important, never ignore your “gut.” You know your child; if you believe you’re seeing signs of depression, anxiety, or other personality issues, get help. Talk to a professional therapist or psychologist, your pediatrician, or school guidance personnel. You can always discuss your fears confidentially and get advice before bringing your child into the conversation.”
What last advice would you like to leave for a parent who has a teen who cuts themselves?
“There is hope and help. Keep in mind that there is more to any teen than this one maladaptive behavior; cutting does not define his or her identity. Early detection and intervention offer the best positive outcomes. There are some good resources to help; research the ones in your area. Most of all, accept your child even though you do not accept this behavior. Resist the urge to shame, punish, guilt or rage about the behavior. If you see suspicious marks on your teen’s skin that look like they might be self-inflicted, gently ask about them. If an injury exists, treat the cut or burn in a non-judgmental way. Show sensitivity, but do seek out a professional to steer your teen back onto a healthy path.”
Thank you Cymbria for doing the interview on how a parent can prevent their teen from cutting themselves. For more information on Cymbria Hess or her article you can check out her website at http://www.cymbriahess.com/.com.
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