Self-Abuse in Teenagers

They (hopefully) call medical or psychological professionals. They feel embarrassment and shame. What they do not often do, however, is understand why this may be happening.

Self-mutilating behaviors vary widely. Some people cut themselves. Some burn. Some may pull out hair or eyelashes. Whatever the behaviors, they are quite unsettling for parents to deal with. Because self-mutilation may be associated with quite serious medical or mental conditions, it is critical to have your child evaluated by medical professionals and psychological professionals. In fact, when you read about those suffering from mental illnesses called personality disorders, the descriptions may seem eerily like descriptions of out-of-control teenagers.

In their book, Stop Walking on Eggshells, on page 38, Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger collected some of the reasons people (not only teens) gave for indulging in self-mutilating behaviors:

  • To tell the truth, I think I did it so someone would notice that in fact I need help.
  • When I cut, I don’t have to try to explain how bad I am feeling. I can show it.
  • When I get angry at someone, I want to destroy, hurt, or kill them. But I know I can’t really hurt that person. So I take out my anger by cutting myself or pulling out my hair. It makes me feel better at the time, but later on I am ashamed of myself and I wish that I had not done it.

As you can see, these are people who are truly suffering. Please don’t assume that your child will “get over it” if you see signs of self-mutilating behaviors. While some teens do, in effect, move on from these patterns of behavior, some do not, and some may escalate.

It is absolutely critical that your child be evaluated by competent professionals to address self-mutilating behaviors, whatever their underlying cause. This is not a time to ignore behavior. It is a time to take immediate action. How can such behaviors be viewed as positive or even helpful to the teenagers who do indulge in them?

Some people who self-mutilate report that they enter into a sort of trance state while cutting or burning themselves. They may actually feel little or no pain at these times. Some have reported that they find a great relief of tension and stress from cutting behaviors as odd as that sounds to most of us.

Treatment for those who self-mutilate cannot be home-grown. It often involves both drugs and psychotherapy, and sometimes even hospitalization for some cases. In any event, as a parent you may be particularly horrified by this behavior in your child. Please try to see it for what it often is: a symptom of a larger problem, and don’t hesitate to locate professional help for your family in this situation.

As a parent, you may feel that this behavior is your fault. At this point, your goal is not to find fault or blame, but to get help. Perhaps you do need different parenting skills. Perhaps your spouse does. Perhaps neighborhood or school situations exist that you are unaware of.

Whatever the case, now is not the time for assessing blame. It is the time to move quickly to find help for your child. Where should you look for appropriate help? First contact your family doctor. See if your medical insurance covers mental health issues. Contact your local hospital. Go on line and gather as much information as you can. Regardless of where you start, start NOW.

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