by Chris Taylor, MFT, Author “Back to Basics"
Teen depression is not a phase. The risk of suicide among depressed teens is scary. Recent statistics show that more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined. Each day in America, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12. Perhaps the scariest fact is that most of the warning signs displayed by teens are missed. Self-harm is one of these signs as teens who display self-harm behaviors are 9 times more likely to commit suicide. There is hope in the fact that 60percent of teens that self-harm will not go on to make an attempt to take their life. Regardless of whether your teen is in the 60 percent that won’t have a suicide attempt, or the 40 percent that will, you need to learn about cutting and how to cope with these behaviors in you teen.
Teens that cut report doing so for one of two reasons, either to escape feeling negative emotion, or so they can experience feeling anything at all. This means that teens who experience depression and anxiety are automatically in the highest risk group for cutting, so step one should be seeking professional help when you see the signs of either, isolation, lack of motivation, few friends, panic attacks, low grades, etc. Getting your teen the help they need early on can not only prevent cutting behaviors but a whole slew of other issues that can last a lifetime.
As a parent, it is important to know that cutting is not limited to the wrists and arms, but many times is done on the upper thighs, stomach or back. This allows teens to hide the behavior from their parents and continue to utilize it as a coping strategy, albeit and incredibly unhealthy one. With that being said, parents should observe their teen’s reluctance to wear short sleeve shirts, bathing suits or any other article of clothing that may reveal the area they are cutting on. Additionally parents should be aware of anything their teens could b using to cut with. Razor blades, broken CD’s, broken plastic hangers, eyeliner sharpeners, can all be options for a teen that cuts. It is also important not to make cutting a gender specific behavior. Although it is true that girls cut more often than boys, you should never dismiss warning signs based on the misperception that boys don’t cut.
If you suspect or have discovered that your teen is cutting, what should you do? First, do not respond with anger or disappointment. Remember that your teen is already flooded with negative emotions and a negative response may exacerbate the issue. For teen’s who cut because they have a hard time feeling anything, a negative response may also create an awareness that they are not experiencing their full range of emotion in response to your level of intensity, and again could potentially exacerbate the situation. The best approach for parents is to display concern and compassion and to really check In with their teens about their teen’s emotional experience. Asking them why they cut, if they are experiencing anxiety or depression, how they are dealing with life pressures, are all great ways to draw your teen into an honest conversation about their emotional health while avoiding the creation of shame and guilt. For parents this means managing their own fears and worries as a basis of immediate reaction, though these feelings should be expressed to the teen after they have shared their own thoughts and feelings. This act of mutual vulnerability where the teen leads the disclosure can bring a sense of closeness and create an environment of safety. Start first with creating the environment where self-harm is not kept a secret and then move to developing a support system and interventions to help eliminate the behavior.