Teens Who Cut Themselves

Jan Faull, MEd, on teens who express inner pain through cutting.
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Q. My teenage daughter has been cutting herself. I just found this out yesterday when my ex-husband's new wife called to tell me that she'd discovered blood on my daughter's shirtsleeves. When she confronted her she found scars on her arms. I have no idea what to do. My ex-husband and I have been divorced for three years; he just got remarried last spring. We share custody of my daughter, and my ex-husband lives in just one town away. For the most part our divorce has been amicable -- we parted after 17 years of marriage. I'd like to put my daughter in a therapy program, but my ex-husband is worried that we can't afford it. What can I do?

A. There is no way to soften the truth about your daughter's behavior. It's serious. She needs help beyond what you and your former husband can provide. You and her father can't afford not to put her into therapy.

A teen who is cutting herself generally feels terrible about herself. She hurts deep inside. When the teen cuts into her skin, then the hurt that she feels all over her body is localized to that one place on her wrist. It's easier to hurt in one specific place temporarily rather than all over all the time, which is overwhelming. Multiple piercings and branding fall into the same category as cutting.

Cutting the wrist is one step away from slitting the wrist. She's temping fate, and so are you and her father by hemming and hawing as to whether she should seek therapy or not. You can make sure she gets help now. Once she turns 18, you can't make that decision for her.

It's easy to blame your divorce for your daughter's feeling of self-loathing. While it may contribute to her current problems, realize that the transition of going from childhood into puberty, and then into full-fledged adolescence, is enough to turn a teenager against herself. Feelings of self-doubt as she breaks away from the importance of family, trying to fit into a social group -- these things throw a child into a whirlwind of strange and often dangerous behavior.

She needs a committed therapist -- not Mom or Dad -- to see her safely through this difficult period in her life. What she needs from her parents is to recognize her troubles and love her in every way possible. Tell her you love her. Fix her hair. Hug her even if she resists. Tell her if anything happened to her, you would miss her every day. Your undying unconditional love, coupled with weekly visits to a therapist, will give her what she needs until she comes out on the other side of the teen transition.

If this response to your question hasn't convinced you to take action, watch the movie Thirteen. Make sure you watch it with a good friend who will turn it off when it gets too graphic, and who will talk with you about the story's realistic message when you are finally able to see this movie to its end.



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