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More tweens cutting themselves today

Recognize the signs and help your tween cope

tween cutting depression mental health

According to mental health experts, self-injury among pre-teens and teenagers is a relatively new phenomena. They say it’s reached epic proportions in just the last 15 years.

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The triggers

“When I’m really anxious, I cut and it’s a sigh of relief,” says a young Hudson Valley woman, who’s battled problems with anxiety. Katie, who asked that her real name be withheld, admits she began cutting herself during her college years. She says she stopped doing it, after seeking treatment. “I’ve always picked at scabs and liked seeing the blood,” she says. “When I feel out of body and not connected to myself—I cut—and it draws me back. I calm down. Cutters are people who like to be in control.”

Cutting without a knife

According to experts, the methods and tools vary. A razor blade, a piece of broken glass or even a paper clip can be used to inflict superficial cuts or much deeper wounds requiring hospitalization. To avoid discovery the injuries are often inflicted on areas of the body that are normally hidden by clothing, such as the torso, forearms or inner thighs. It’s not unusual for self-harming girls to also pick at scabs, scratch or burn themselves. Some have even engaged in head banging or breaking bones, but experts say those cases are very rare.

An epidemic

“It’s become a real common epidemic at this point among middle school, high school and college students,” says Sandy Essington, counseling center supervisor of the Astor Counseling Center in Red Hook. “What we see the most are adolescents from 12 to 16.”

READ MORE: Signs of childhood depression

It’s estimated that between two and three million people or one percent of the total U.S. population exhibit some form of self-abusive behavior, including eating disorders. Experts believe one in every 200 girls between the ages of 13 and 19 cut themselves regularly. As for Katie, she says it was easy for her to learn about cutting. “I read about it,” she says, “people on the internet talk about it. It’s just something kids do.”

A new addiction

“Cutting is not a suicidal act, but more of a release. One thing it does is release endorphins,” says Essington. “It releases tensions. Patients have told me that seeing the blood makes them feel real.”

Dr. Paul Schwartz is a professor of psychology at Mt. St. Mary’s College. He says cutting has been compared to drug use, since both practices can become addictive. “It’s not only a form of control, in some respects it’s not unlike drug taking,” he says. “Why do people take drugs? Because they work; for many teens cutting works.”

Why girls and not boys

According to Schwartz, girls tend to internalize their pain. They complain of feeling numbed by it. “When an adolescent is severely depressed, they experience Anhedonia; the inability to feel,” says Schwartz, “and the sense of pain that comes with cutting allows the adolescent to feel something.” Essington says many of the teenage girls she sees are dealing with an inordinate amount of stress.

READ MORE: Tips for raising kids with a healthy body image

Some possible causes

“There’s a lot of drama among teenage girls.” Essington says, “The ongoing drama of teenage life may sound trivial, but it should be taken seriously.”

Essington points out that cell phone bullying; naked pictures sent to a boyfriend; rumors about relationships or sexual encounters; or just petty meanness can be humiliating and create the environment for serious depression.

“Cutting is a warning sign,” she says. “If things don’t change, it could get worse. It’s also a sign that something is going on like abuse or bullying.”


In many cases, parents are the last to find out that their teen is harming herself. The discovery can initially be made by friends, the school nurse, teachers or school administrators.Treatment usually involves therapy. It involves helping the teens understand why they injure themselves and helping them develop skills to better cope with their personal issues. depending on the diagnosis, treatment can also involve medication.

For parents, what’s important, is how they react to the shock of learning that their child is cutting. Mary Waldon, licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), is a therapist in Illinois who works with self-harming teens has just released a self-help DVD on the subject. She has advice for parents. “Don’t overreact,” she says. “It’s a tough time to be a girl. It’s not up to a parent to determine if it’s self harm or a suicide attempt. The child needs to be evaluated by a trained therapist.”

In Katie’s case, the therapy was successful. She explains what she learned. “Use your words. Don’t take things out on yourself.”

READ MORE: Dr. Paul Schwartz discusses treating childhood depression

Coping with cutting:
How parents should respond

  • Consider how you say it. Experts say how a parent reacts to the news about their child cutting is more important than what is actually said. Your teen needs to know that you care and are not being judgmental.
  • Love and encouragement. Your teen needs to know she has your support and encouragement. Chances are she may not want to talk about her injuries at first and may be in denial.
  • Treatment. There are many different treatments available for cutting. In many cases, the self-harming teen is evaluated and undergoes family therapy.
  • Be patient. If cutting has become a habit for your teen, it will take time to change her behavior. Sometimes, there are setbacks and the teen may go back to harming herself. Through it all, she will need to know she has your support as she tries to overcome depression.
Learn as much as you can about cutting. It’s often said that “knowledge is power.” In seeking help for your child, this saying couldn’t be truer.

Robert Lachman is an award-winning journalist who lives in Red Hook. He has worked for many local newspapers. He’s also a singer-songwriter, who performs in the area.

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