Updated: Mar 21, 2020
In my previous article I provided you information about self-cutting behaviors, signs, and related mental health illnesses. As parents you need to know how you can help your teenager when they are engaging in self-cutting behaviors. You will learn about teenagers' brain development and how this relates to recurring to the self-cutting behavior as a “coping skills”. Then I'll go over some of the things that you, as a parent or adult, can do to help your teenager.
The self-cutting behavior is not merely to seek attention, but it's a cry for help and it might be a result of depression and/or an anxiety disorder. Remember, wearing warm clothes even when there is warm or hot weather, constantly pulling their sleeves down, isolating, and engaging in negative self-talk. Be on the lookout if those behaviors are co-existing with some of the following symptoms: changes in their sleep, in appetite, in interest and motivation, in self-confidence, and an increase of hopelessness.
Your teen is in a crucial developmental stage where their brain is working hard in preparing him or her for adulthood. The brain is going through restructuring, strengthening and deleting connections in their thinking and processing part of the brain. The last part of the brain to go through this process in the prefrontal cortex in charge of decision making, problem solving and impulse control. Your teen's brain is under lots of pressure itself to deal with external stress, such as poverty, family conflict, community violence, and others.
About ninety percent of the time parents and adults ask me "why" or 'what's wrong" when referring to their teenager's behavior. The question at hand is, "what happened?" Most of the children and teenagers I’ve worked with have at least one adverse childhood experience. This means that they have experienced some kind of trauma that affected their brain development and their overall functioning. Some teens are being raised by a single parent, have a parent incarcerated, have a deceased parent, are being raised by grandparents, have been abused (physically, sexually, or verbally), are living in poverty, or have been injured. In addition, some teenagers perceive he or she have no support system. This is enough for a child to feel hopeless and blame themselves. To punish themselves or relieve their pain then teenagers engage in self-injurious behaviors, such as self-cutting.
Adults you are key in helping your teen. You might want to check the search history on their phone to know if your teen is looking for information related to the self injurious behaviors. As a parent, try to find all opportunities to look at their arms, wrists, thighs, and stomach. You want to respect their body and privacy, but if you are noticing most of the behaviors and symptoms described above, then check. It is your responsibility to keep your child or teenager safe. And self-cutting is not safe and is very unhealthy. Adults, if you're concerned about a teenager that is not your child, please let the parent know. If you see some “cuts” in their wrists or arms notify immediately. This teenager needs support, emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Once you've noticed the signs it's time to seek support. Start by telling your teen’s primary care physician, who can briefly screen your child for mental health needs. Talk to them about your concerns and request a referral for a mental health therapist. Once you have found a mental health therapist, be consistent with taking your child to every appointment. I know life gets in the way, but reschedule if you have to cancel. It also doesn’t hurt to have your teen assessed by a psychiatrist. Not always your teen will be prescribed with medication, but the psychiatry evaluation will help with learning about the diagnosis (if your teen is diagnosed with a mental illness) and what would best address his or her mental health needs. Try to find a support network for your teen such as, family, friends, after school activities, school clubs, sports, church, etc. Having your teen involved in different activities help build their confidence, which is compromised at by depression and anxiety. Last but not least, inform the school counselor or school social worker about what you have learned. These professionals are bound by confidentiality and will support with resources, referrals, and developing a plan for your teen to be successful in school. If you are notified by school personnel, please cooperate and know they care for your teen, and their responsibility is to notify parents.
Self-cutting is a common self-destructive behavior among teenagers. Sometimes it starts at a younger age, eleven and twelve. Often, self-cutting happens when teenagers are experiencing depression and/or an anxiety disorder. The stage of adolescents is complex due to the restructuring of the brain. The change in their brain combined with adverse childhood experiences, are a “ticking bomb”. Parents and adults, can help by observing and actively listening to your teenager. Find activities for your teen to attend and seek medical and/or mental health professional support immediately. Parents, seek support yourself.