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Hurting from the Outside - In: The Rise of Self-harming

Ask any teacher or adolescent counselor what the most disturbing trend they are seeing in teens today is, and they are likely to tell you it's the growing number of "cutters".

By cutters, they mean people who hurt themselves or "self-injure" a term that is more encompassing of the many types of behaviors that are actually involved. Whatever the form of self-injury, cutting, burning, biting or any of many other similar behaviors, teens hurting themselves in an attempt to deal with emotional pain is on the rise.

Today it is thought that 1% of youth in America are engaging in self-harming behavior. And, while both males and females are self-harming, girls are four times more likely to self-harm than boys. This behavior, which has been around forever, but was noted only rarely in the past, is running through peer-groups like a infectious disease; striking fear into the hearts of many parents. Parents often do not know what to make the behavior in their children

What causes a person to engage in self-harm is as varied as the number of people hurting themselves. One cutter that may express the sentiments of many put it this way," I cannot adequately describe in words my emotional state prior to a cutting. The feelings are overwhelming--usually severe feelings of rejection, self-hatred or anger. Cutting presents a way to make the pain show (and be felt) on the *outside* where I can deal with it." Frequently, as this person points out, self-harm is a coping strategy for dealing with emotional pain that has become intolerable.

Self-harm is not necessarily an attempt at suicide. Though one study found that half of students who engage in the behavior express thoughts of suicide, many professionals see the behavior as a maladaptive coping skill used to keep the person alive. Some would say that the longer the person engages in self-harming acts the less likely that they are attempts at suicide. Self-injury is nonetheless a dangerous behavior and one that can lead to unintentional death.

Identifying the person who is harming them self, may not always be easy. Frequently, the person cuts on areas that cannot be easily seen by others. They may wear long sleeve shirts and pants to cover up the scars. Some characteristics of people who are at risk for cutting include:

Low self-esteem extreme sensitivity to rejection high levels of anger suppress emotions impulsive depressed suffer chronic anxiety have been abused

Many people who engage in self-harming do get better. There are a handful of inpatient programs around the country and an increasing number of therapists and programs treating self-harm on an outpatient basis. If your child is hurting her or himself, seek help.

© 2005, David Westbrook

David Westbrook is a freelance writer and the host of http://www.troubledteenresources.net/ a resource guide for parents.

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