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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Teenage Self Injury

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: May 9th 2008

 It is a well known fact that adolescence can be, for many, a time of emotional turmoil and stress. Beginning with the pre teen years, boys and girls experience a huge surge in hormones, development of the major sexual characteristics that we associate with men and women and start the process of the final stage of separation from family and local neighborhood.
It is for these and many other reasons that there has been an increase in the number of teenagers who engage in self cutting behaviors.

On Tuesday, May 6, 2008 the Jane E. Brody of The New York Times reported on an increasingly prevalent phenomenon among our teenagers. That phenomenon is that teenagers and college students are cutting themselves. The reasons these young people give for this self harming behavior range from reporting that it reduces their anxiety, to allowing them to feel a sense of control over their bodies when they feel they have no other kind of control over their lives. Others state that it expresses emotional pain for which they have no words or that pain is better than feeling nothing.

One of the most worrisome things about self injury is that it can become addictive. Self injury leads to neurons in the brain releasing endorphins that act like opioids in creating a pleasant and high feeling. The release of these natural brain opioids then becomes reinforcing of the self harming behavior.

Added to the problem is the fact that the Internet has become a place where teens can contact one another and both learn about and find support for self harming behaviors. In this way, they come to feel part of a support group where they feel accepted when, in their family and school lives, they may feel ignored and unsupported.

According to the New York Times article, girls receive more psychological help for this but studies show that males and females equally engage in this behavior.

The Times article also states that, in many ways, these self harming behaviors stem from families that have difficulty with communication. These are family systems that encourage "stuffing emotions" down and out of site with the focus being on the "stiff upper lip" way of being. Therefore, the children emerging from these families have no healthy way of expressing what they are experiencing growing up in this modern and difficult world.

While there are no medications that can stop self injuring behaviors, psychotherapy is recommended for these young people. It is important that the psychotherapy be geared to learning to feel empowered in their lives and to find healthier and more effective ways to express emotions.

It is important that parents look for signs of self injury. Young people who suddenly begin wearing long sleeve shirts, blouses and pants, even in the warm weather, may be attempting to hide scars and marks. The moment this is discovered, it is important that parents not act punitively but seek immediate help for their youngsters. The sooner the problem is addressed the less likely it is that it will become more chronic and difficult to treat. It is also important that suspecting parents and friends not accept vague excuses about the teenager having hurt their self by "accident."

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

What can i do to prevent my son from behaving in this matter? - Cris - Sep 14th 2009

My son is a 15 year old who has anger issues.  He is repeating the ninth grade.  I took time encouraging him to do better this year and i will be there to support him. 

Unfortunately,  I ask my father to assist me in raising my son but my father wants full custody.  My father is conveying  negative information concerning me to my son and my son agrees with my father.  (My father conveyed that it is not sons' fault he is the way he is.  It is way you were raised by your mother.  After talking to my son to make him aware what my father doing and it is not  acceptable, My son replied that he feels that I love my other two daughters more than him.  Of course, I reassured my son that this is not true.  I love all of you the same.  I got up and went to bed. 

I was going let my father keep my son but after hearing this from my son.  I received a clear picture to stay away from my father and build my relationship with my son by assuring him of the love I have for  him.  I wrote you to see your imput regarding this matter.  I am hurting and I want to protect my son.  There is so much to this story but I gave you the negist of what is happening in the here and now process.

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