Jun 20, 2016

Dr. Gellner: It's a disturbing trend, teens cutting themselves. Why? And how can you help your child, if they are a cutter. I'm Dr. Cindy Gellner and we'll discuss this on today's Scope.

Announcer: Keep your kids healthy and happy. You are now entering The Healthy Kid Zone, with Dr. Cindy Gellner, on The Scope.

Dr. Gellner: Cutting isn't new. But, this form of self injury has been more openly discussed lately. If you haven't heard about cutting, chances are pretty good, that your teen has and might even know someone who does it. It can be hard to understand why a teen would deliberately cut themselves. But parents who are aware of this problem, can really help. That's why we're talking about it today.

Many parents don't really understand what cutting is. It's when a person uses a sharp object to make marks, cuts, or scratches on their body, on purpose. Teens usually cut themselves on their forearms, thighs, or belly. Somewhere they can hide with clothing. They might use a razor blade, knife, scissors, a metal tab from a soda can, the end of a paperclip, anything that can injure the skin. And there is a sense of shame and secrecy that often goes along with cutting. So most teens make up excuses on how they were hurt if someone sees the marks.

Most people who cut are girls. But guys do it too. And it usually starts during the teen years. The bottom line is that cutting is a sign of a deeper, emotional issue. And if you want to help your teen, you'll need to figure out, what those issues are. The cutting often begins as an impulse. "So and so mentioned it feels good, so maybe I should try it." A teen might give in to peer pressure to try cutting as a way to seem cool, popular, or avoid being bullied by other teens.

Regardless of the reasons, cutting isn't a healthy way to deal with the extreme emotions, or pressures, that come with the teenage years. For some, cutting helps them deal with feelings that seem too intense to endure. From the normal teenage heartbreaks, to rejections from friends, dramatic situations, or even the pressure to be perfect. Deep grief can be overwhelming for some.

Cutting can be a way of testing whether they can still feel physical pain. Others describe cutting, as a way of waking up from emotional numbness. Many teens discover that once they start, they can't stop. There is a sense of control and relief to see and know where this specific pain is coming from. And a sense of soothing when it stops. It seems to give them a sort of stress relief, from deep painful emotions, or even a high. Endorphins are feel good hormones released during intense physical exertion. But, they can be released during an injury.

Unfortunately, cutting is a behavior that tends to reinforce itself. Many teens say they feel addicted to the behavior. Whenever tension builds, the brain craves relief and drives the self injuring teen to seek relief by cutting again. Some would like to stop but don't know how, or feel they can't. Other teens don't want to stop the cutting, it just feels that good.

Cutting is often linked to other mental health conditions. Like obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, or bipolar. Other teens struggle with personality traits that attract them to dangerous excitement of risky behavior, or self destructive acts. Some are prone to dramatic ways of getting reassurance that they are loved and cared about. Many teens cut for a long time before anyone else knows. It can take courage and trust, to reach out.

If confronted by the cutting, teens can respond in different ways depending partly on the teen, and partly how they are approached by it. Some might deny the cutting, while others might admit to it. But say it's not really a problem. Some might get angry and reject any help. But many teens are relieved that someone knows, cares, and wants to help.

Like quitting any habit, cutting can be difficult to stop. And a teen might not succeed at first. It takes determination, courage, strength, as well as support from others, who understand and care, to break this powerful desire to harm themselves. If you find that your child is cutting, please talk to your pediatrician or other mental health provider. Getting to the bottom of the cause of the cutting may take some time. But your child is worth it.

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