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Saturday, July 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Parenting / Jan Faull
Self-inflicted "cutting" reflects a deeper hurt


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Self-inflicted injury, referred to as "cutting," is a serious adolescent problem.

When parents, teachers or friends see wounds or other signs of self-mutilation, they need to take action. These slashes usually aren't from a family cat but instead from a razor blade, pocketknife or a plastic utensil. Sometimes a teen resorts to unbending a paper clip and transforming it into a stabbing instrument. If you see scratches or cuts on your daughter's or son's body, you'll most likely ask, "What in the world happened to your arm?" The teen probably won't 'fess up to what he or she is doing, but instead will explain it away as an unlikely accident.

Teens who are cutting themselves hurt emotionally. When teens cut into their skin, most claim that the sensation of cutting and the bleeding that follows actually feel good. When physical pain follows, the hurt that they feel all over their body is localized to that one place on the arm. It's easier to tolerate physical hurt in one specific place rather than indiscriminant emotional pain all the time. The physical pain is temporary; self-loathing is burdensome for a long time.

Once teenagers cut themselves, they usually claim, "This will be the last time." They might try to distract themselves, yet the thought of cutting consumes their day. Once home, the secret ritual, which often includes special music, lighted candles and a special towel to wipe the blood, reoccurs.

Why do some say this problem is on the rise? Perhaps there is a combination of reasons:

It's a way to cope with demanding social and academic expectations some teenagers find impossible to meet.

The contagion effect. One student sees a friend doing it and thinks it's an acceptable way of handling troubling emotions.

It could be that this generation of teenagers is experiencing a greater lack of direction from the significant adults in their lives.
 
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Deep-seated self-loathing based in early childhood awakes during the upheaval of puberty.

When the cutting reaches its peak, teens become fearful that teachers or parents will notice so they become creative, wearing bracelets and long sleeves to cover their wounds.

Most parents can't fathom the possibility that their child could inflict such pain on himself or herself. It's hard for families because they're embarrassed. It's shameful; they don't want people to think they've done something wrong as parents. Also, parents feel powerless to change a child's behavior. It's not that parents aren't concerned, but they lack knowledge.

Parents should be suspicious if they find knives, razor blades, box cutters or other sharp objects hidden in a teen's bedroom, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Also watch if a teen regularly locks herself or himself up in the bedroom or bathroom for lengthy periods of time following a bad day at school, negative encounters with peers, or family conflicts.

If a teen sees cuts on a peer's arm, this is the time to tell a teacher or other respected adult.

Once a teen is cutting himself or herself, there's no time to hem and haw; the act is a mental-health issue, and the teen needs therapy and possibly medication. The teenager needs parents to recognize his or her troubles and love him or her anyway.

A treatment program called SAFE (Self-Abuse Finally Ends) offers information for parents, teens, teachers and social workers on its Web site, www.safe-alternatives.com.

Other Web resources include www.aacap.org/publications/factsfam/73.htm or www.aamft.org/families/Consumer_Updates/Adolescent_Self_Harm.asp.

Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at janfaull@aol.com or write to: Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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