The Teen Doctor

Answers to your questions about adolescents

My Daughter Has A Dirty Little Secret

My teenage daughter self mutilates

Dear Dr. G.,

I am not only scared and mad but I am also confused. I got a call from my 14 year old daughter's school psychologist during which she told me that my daughter cuts herself. At first, I was so mad that I punished my daughter and told her that she has a great life and there is no reason for her to be doing such a bizarre thing. I told her that she is grounded until she stops this crazy behavior completely.
Now, my daughter is telling me that she is depressed and that is one of the main reasons that she cuts herself. I really don't get that. Why would you harm yourself intentionally?

When I was growing up I never heard of anybody doing such a thing. The worst thing we did as teens was smoke cigarettes. I have been having my daughter show me her body everyday so that I can see if she's hurting herself. She hates this but I feel that it's what I have to do. Look what happened when I wasn't watching closely.

Okay Dr. G.,I know that you are going to tell me to take my daughter to a therapist. For your information, I have already scheduled an appointment. I would, however, appreciate it if you could explain this strange behavior to me. The school psychologist says that it is not uncommon. Is she just trying to make me feel better?

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A Terribly Upset Mother

Dear Mother,

I can certainly understand why you are upset. And good for you that you have already scheduled an initial therapy appointment for your daughter.

The school psychologist is correct when she says that there are other adolescent females who engage in this sort of behavior. In fact, a recent study found that 1 in 12 adolescent females have cut themselves during their teen years. We can only speculate as to why there has been an increase in this sort of behavior over the past decade but my best guess is that it is due to media exposure, increased stress, and the effects of behavioral contagion. The teens tend to try out behaviors that their peers are engaging in.

Having said that, keep in mind that most teen girls do NOT cut themselves. I have worked with self-mutilating girls for years and believe that I can explain the function of this behavior to you. These girls tend to be experiencing a variety of emotions including anger, sadness, mood shifts, and confusion, and feel ill-equipped to deal with these emotions. Some of them have heard of cutting so they try it and experience temporary relief from these negative feelings. It is believed that endorphins that induce a brief "high" kick in. Since the "high' or improved mood is only temporary the cutting is repeated.

Therapy is indicated for these young women. In most cases these teens are not suicidal. They do not want to die. They simply want to feel better. In therapy, they learn to deal with their feelings and relationships effectively so that cutting is no longer necessary. I have seen MANY teen girls who tell me (and I believe them) that cutting no longer works for them once they have developed more effective skills in therapy.

There is no stigma in getting therapy for your daughter and/or your family. The only thing that should be stigmatized is not seeking out therapy in this sort of situation. I suggest that you stop the body checks. Believe me, they are not helping you or your daughter. And, keep in mind that even those of us who have "good lives" are not immune to depression, anger, and a whole host of other negative and uncomfortable feelings.

Support your daughter throughout therapy and seek out a therapist for yourself if you feel that the additional support would be helpful.

Good Luck,
Dr.G.

For more articles like this, take a look at my website:

http://www.talkingteenage.com/

 

Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of adolescents and their well-intentioned but exhausted parents.

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