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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Was This Normal Teenage Behavior — or Something More Important? (Part 2 of 2)

By Samantha Smith

Parents love their kids and want to help them when they're struggling emotionally. The hard part can be discerning whether what they're experiencing is normal for their age or merits professional intervention.

Non-Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI), commonly referred to as "cutting," always rises to that level, says Dr. Karen Hutcheson, a licensed psychologist specializing in the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families. Parents often assume this is attention-getting behavior, making them reluctant to acknowledge it as a valid threat. Dr. Hutcheson concedes that "social contagion" can lead our kids to try something they're curious about, "But research shows that those who've done it once usually do have a high level of emotional distress."

NSSI is an unhealthy attempt to regulate emotions — a coping mechanism to gain a sense of control over an uncomfortable feeling. (Learn more about NSSI.)

Some common situations present when teens self-harm include:
  • Perfectionists and over-achievers who feel they aren't good enough academically, athletically or otherwise.
  • Stress present among family members, such as parents fighting or divorcing.
  • Internet pornography addiction resulting in emotional struggles with guilt and shame.
  • Sexual, emotional or physical abuse.
Because pain causes the body to release mood-enhancing endorphins, there's an immediate feeling of relief from a person's emotional pain, which can reinforce the behavior in hurting teens. Others "cut" in order to feel again, because long-term emotional pain led to a state of learned helplessness where they've become numb.

Teens struggling with emotional well-being don't always harm themselves but can experience anxiety, depression, compulsions and other issues effectively treated by a reputable psychologist or well-trained Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

"We need to be an expert on our child,” says Dr. Hutcheson. “For example, you may notice a growing disdain your daughter seems to have about her body image, or an increased anger present in your son. When we're really doing life with our kids we have a clearer sense when something isn't right. If you think something is off with your child, it's always best to err on the side of caution rather than waiting for them to acknowledge something is wrong. Our society in general has a stigma of shame around emotional illness of any kind, so they aren't likely to talk about it and can feel very alone in an environment where sadness is repressed with comments like 'don't cry.' We need to be as willing to get our kids checked out for emotional issues as we are for physical ailments," Dr. Hutcheson urges.

Tips for parents:
  • Be an expert on your child. If you think something may be wrong, act on it!
  • Accept that depression, anxiety, and compulsions are real and treatable.
  • Don't try to prevent them from expressing emotions.
  • Have a calm reaction without anger or extreme emotions, but be very pro-active to show you are going to get them connected with someone to help.
  • Find a reputable, trained professional through a word-of-mouth referral. Be sure they are licensed and have experience working with your child's age group and issues. It is appropriate to ask for 5-10 minutes of their time by phone or in person to determine if they may be a good fit.

Dr. Hutcheson is an associate at Kentucky Psychiatric Mental Health Services in East Louisville. The practice offers a blog with professional articles by their doctors about relevant clinical issues.

Read about one family's struggle through teen depression in yesterday's blog post.


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