Some Teens Resort To Cutting Themselves To Deal With Emotional Pain
By the time Odelia Yeung was 7 years old, she had been abused by her father, taken away from her mother and placed with two different sets of foster parents.
When she turned 8, Yeung and her older sister were adopted by a family in Poway. They grew up with nine other kids.
For Yeung, the urge to hurt herself started in middle school. Whenever she got a bad grade, hurt someone’s feelings or broke a rule, she would punish herself.
“And I would punch the wall till my hands bled, or sometimes I would cut my legs and arms up with a razor," Yeung recalled. "But the usual thing I would do would be punching walls. For a long time, that was kind of my go-to thing I would do.”
Yeung said her biological father used to beat her for the slightest infraction. She thinks that had a lot to do with her drive to hurt herself.
“It just made me believe that anytime that anything doesn’t go perfectly that there need to be repercussions," she said. "And if it wasn’t going to happen to me from an outside source, it better happen to me, by me.”
Yeung’s adoptive mom, Laura Meuller, said she freaked out when she discovered what Odelia was doing.
“When it kept happening, helplessness was the primary feeling that I had," she explained. "And some of my overreaction were like as I if you saw your baby falling off a cliff and you’re wanting to catch it and save it, and you can’t."
Research at Cornell University reveals an estimated 1 out of 4 teenagers intentionally have hurt themselves at least once. An estimated 8 percent of teenagers hurt themselves on a frequent basis.
Self-harming behavior is sometimes referred to as an outward expression of inner pain. Affected teens say it’s a way to deal with anxiety and other negative feelings.
A number of entertainers who are popular with teens, like singer Demi Levato, have revealed their experiences with self-harm.
San Diego psychologist Divya Kakaiya said a lot of middle schoolers are paying close attention.
“They say, 'Wow, if Demi Lovato does it and she can recover from it, and this is how she showed her pain, then I guess I can show my pain that way,'" Kakaiya said.
Kakaiya also is concerned that social media and the Internet tend to glorify and even reinforce cutting behavior.
She points out kids who self-harm don’t experience cutting as painful. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
“Self-harm behaviors kick a lot of dopamine in the brain. And the dopamine is the craving molecule; it’s the molecule of addiction," Kakaiya explained. "So as soon as a kid has turned to the cutting for the dopamine, then instantly, their brain is going to demand more dopamine. That’s how it becomes an addictive behavior.”
Typically, a child who is cutting is not suicidal, but is crying out for help, Kakaiya said.
Her approach is to ask her patients to describe what’s going on in their world, why they started cutting, and why it feels good. Then, she works with them to come up with different ways of coping.
Odelia Yeung had a lot of support from her family, and from counseling.
Counseling has helped her develop the ability to talk about her feelings, and find more productive ways to relieve stress and anxiety.
Yeung is now 21 and happily married. She said she last felt the urge to cut herself about a year ago. But Yeung admits it’s tough getting rid of her inner critic.
“I still have that voice in my head when I screw up," she admitted. "And even though I haven’t cut myself in a long while, it’s still there. So I guess I still need to be working on that.”