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Teenage Self Injury

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

It is for these and many other reasons that there has been an increase in the number of teenagers who engage in self cutting behaviors.

On Tuesday, May 6, 2008 the Jane E. Brody of The New York Times reported on an increasingly prevalent phenomenon among our teenagers. That phenomenon is that teenagers and college students are cutting themselves. The reasons these young people give for this self harming behavior range from reporting that it reduces their anxiety, to allowing them to feel a sense of control over their bodies when they feel they have no other kind of control over their lives. Others state that it expresses emotional pain for which they have no words or that pain is better than feeling nothing.

One of the most worrisome things about self injury is that it can become addictive. Self injury leads to neurons in the brain releasing endorphins that act like opioids in creating a pleasant and high feeling. The release of these natural brain opioids then becomes reinforcing of the self harming behavior.

Added to the problem is the fact that the Internet has become a place where teens can contact one another and both learn about and find support for self harming behaviors. In this way, they come to feel part of a support group where they feel accepted when, in their family and school lives, they may feel ignored and unsupported.

According to the New York Times article, girls receive more psychological help for this but studies show that males and females equally engage in this behavior.

The Times article also states that, in many ways, these self harming behaviors stem from families that have difficulty with communication. These are family systems that encourage "stuffing emotions" down and out of site with the focus being on the "stiff upper lip" way of being. Therefore, the children emerging from these families have no healthy way of expressing what they are experiencing growing up in this modern and difficult world.

While there are no medications that can stop self injuring behaviors, psychotherapy is recommended for these young people. It is important that the psychotherapy be geared to learning to feel empowered in their lives and to find healthier and more effective ways to express emotions.

It is important that parents look for signs of self injury. Young people who suddenly begin wearing long sleeve shirts, blouses and pants, even in the warm weather, may be attempting to hide scars and marks. The moment this is discovered, it is important that parents not act punitively but seek immediate help for their youngsters. The sooner the problem is addressed the less likely it is that it will become more chronic and difficult to treat. It is also important that suspecting parents and friends not accept vague excuses about the teenager having hurt their self by "accident."

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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