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Teen emotional pain and cutting

Self-control balances on a razor's edge for some teenagers.

The evidence appears in neat, straight lines etched along a forearm, cross-hatches carved on an inner thigh, or cuts around an ankle. A growing number of adolescents practice self-harm in an attempt to distract their minds from emotional pain.

While self-injury can provide a perverse kind of comfort for the teen, discovering that a grandchild is suffering raises painful questions for us. Is the behavior a suicide attempt? Why did she do it? Why would cutting into her own skin offer any sort of relief?

I found myself asking these and other questions when my granddaughter, Annie, was caught up in cutting. Although she was in a girls' correctional facility at the time, it was unthinkable that she was hurting herself in this way. My heart breaking, I had to arrange professional help.

Adolescent psychiatrist Deborah Mossinghoff, MD, believes that when young people are feeling extreme depression and numbness, cutting may a way to feel something. According to Mossinghoff, the brain releases adrenaline, which relieves pain biologically. So, in the moment, they feel better. But even though the tension may be released and the outer scars may heal, the inner turmoil remains.

Mossinghoff and other mental health professionals teach coping, communications, and problem-solving strategies that help young people and their families learn to explain their feelings in a healthy way. This takes a long time for most of these kids, who are hurting so much inside that they can't describe it.

Many of them have suffered incredible losses, such as parental abandonment. This is frequently the case when grandparents have taken over the parenting role, as it was with Annie. It has taken years of therapy, love, and prayer for her to come out of her shell and begin to open up. She has struggled within herself, making self-destructive choices. But she finally realizes she is loved. She is learning to trust and is turning her life around. (And she agreed to be the focus of this column.)

Growing up is a difficult task, especially in a time of instant gratification. And when kids are reeling from the effects of child abuse or abandonment, it is even more difficult.

We grandparents who are attempting to parent our grandkids also have a difficult job. The world has changed since we were teens. We have to rely on faith and every bit of energy we can muster to get the job done. Back when I began to parent TJ, William, and Annie, the Beatles were singing that "all you need is love." I was pretty sure it was going to take more than love to finish the task of raising these three precious kids. So I kept at it, seeking all the help and support I could get, and praying constantly.

Here are some guidelines if you discover that your grandchild is self-injuring:

  • Maintain composure. Don't show shock, fear, or alarm.
  • Speak with her calmly and non- judgmentally.
  • Express your love and concern.
  • Offer first aid and care. Deep cuts may need emergency attention.
  • Threats and rewards ("You can stay up later if…") are rarely effective.
  • Do not ask "Why are you doing this to me?" or even "Why are you doing this?"
  • Listen! Don't try to offer your opinion or fix the problem. The goal is open communication.
  • Tell him you will educate yourself so you can better understand what he is going through.
  • Tell her you are concerned about her and that she can talk to you about anything—and follow through with that promise.