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Teen Cutting: How to Help

What happens when a parent suspects that their teenager is cutting? That moment is horrifying and terrifying. What can a parent do? Psychiatrist Molly McVoy offers 13 suggestions that will help a parent guide their teenager down a path to recovery.

Advice for Parents with Kids who are Cutting:

1. Ask them.

This seems some­what obvious, but this is the first step that many parents are afraid to take. Talk to your teen. That’s the only way you will know what is hap­pening. Once you ask, some of the tips below may help you deal with the answer.

2. Listen, listen, and listen.

Once you’ve asked, stop talking. Listen to what they have to say because you want to know why.

3. Accept your own emotions.

A subject like this is likely to be up­setting. You may feel angry, sad, confused or overwhelmed. Being able to manage your own emotions will be an important part of helping your teen. So, do whatever it takes to manage your own emotions: talk to a friend, talk to a therapist, get support from somewhere

4. Seek professional support for your child.

Although cutting is not always associated with psychiatric illness, it is a sign that something is wrong, and can be a first indicator that other dangerous behaviors are occurring. This is not something you should manage alone. Involve a professional who can help your teen cope. It is also critically impor­tant to get a psychiatric evaluation to assess if there is an underlying psychiatric illness.

5. Listen, listen, and listen.

Teens who cut often feel misunderstood and unable to handle their emo­tions. The first step in treatment is finding a nonjudgmental adult who will listen. Nonjudgmental listen­ing is difficult, but this is a crucial step.

6. Be prepared for dishonesty.

For most, cutting is an embarrassing and uncomfortable topic. Do not be surprised if your teen denies cutting or refuses to talk about it.

7. Be patient.

If your teen refuses to talk, be patient and keep trying. Reframe the discussion around a peer or a celebrity that cuts, or simply talk about your teen’s day. Eventually, they will talk with you.

8. Trust your instincts.

If you are seriously concerned that your teen is cutting, get help, even if they deny it or refuse to talk. You know your teen. If your gut tells you something is wrong, get help whether or not your teen agrees.

9. Listen, listen, and listen.

This cannot be overstated. Intense and frequently changing emotions are part of adolescence. But in teens who cut, these emotions are even more intense and overwhelming. Feeling that someone is listening to them is one of the biggest fac­tors that can lead a teen to stop cutting.

10. Set an example for coping.

Your teen will look to you as a role model for coping. Notice your own reaction. Do you accept your own emotions, or are you quick to judge and easily overwhelmed with emotions?

11. Know when to call for emergen­cy help.

If you are concerned that cutting is associated with suicidal thoughts, call the suicide hotline in your county. If there is a sudden in­crease in cutting, call someone. If the wound requires medical inter­vention, call someone.

12. Be supportive.

Let your teen know that talking may be difficult, but you will be unconditionally sup­portive. Although you disapprove of the behavior, you will always love your teen.

13. Be optimistic.

There are treat­ments that work, and you and your teen can be hopeful that things will get better.

Dr. Molly McVoy is a psychiatrist and program director of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at UH Case Medical Center. 

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