Is your teen involved in self-destructive behavior such as cutting, purging food or drug abuse? Are you unsure on what to do to help your teen overcome their self destructive behavior? To help understand reasons why your teen could be involved in self-destructive behavior and what you can do to help your teen manage their feelings of self destructive behavior, I have interviewed psychologist Brette Genzel-Derman, Psy.D, M.S.W.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I specialize in psychological assessment and have a private practice in Woodland Hills, California. As a consultant to Children’s Institute Inc., located in Los Angeles, I provide comprehensive psychological assessments for children and adolescents who are experiencing difficulties at home, in school or within the community. I am currently the Coordinator of the Assessment of Sexual Knowledge (ASK) program at the Child and Family Guidance Center where I train staff on how to conduct forensic sexual abuse evaluations.”
” I received my Bachelor of Arts degree (B.A.) in Psychology from the State University of New York, College at Cortland (SUNY Cortland). I earned a Masters in Social Work (M.S.W) from Syracuse University where I specialized in working with children and families and earned a Doctorate degree (PsyD) in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles.”
What are some reasons a teen may engage in self destructive behavior?
“Self-destructive behavior can take many forms, vary in degree of seriousness and have different causal factors. Self-destructive behavior can present itself in the form of teenagers who sabotage their academic performance by not studying, to those who behave in a sexually provocative manner, abuse alcohol or drugs, starve themselves, go on eating binges, drive recklessly, or inflict physical injury on themselves.”
“Teens having undisclosed or untreated trauma histories are at particular high risk for these behaviors, as are teens that have been neglected, abandoned or separated from their primary caretaker. Alternatively, young adults can engage in this type of behavior if they do not experience their family environment as a comfortable and safe place to communicate openly about feelings.”
“The common thread among all of these behaviors is that they are coping strategies developed by a teen in order to mitigate emotional pain. Some teens with traumatic histories become so emotionally numb that they explain their cutting behavior as a way of helping them to feel more alive. Some youngsters have also shared that the cutting serves a tension relieving function for them.”
“For many teenagers with eating disorders, food becomes intimately tied with their emotional world. The anorexic that starves herself may be asserting control in the only way she knows how. Her refusal to eat may be an expression of the degree of disdain she has for herself and how undeserving she feels of taking in anything good. The bulimic that purges may do so to get rid of unwanted feelings of pain, anger and stress that have been internalized. Binging is an expression of the intense need to be filled up “emotionally,” while the vomiting serves a tension- relieving function.”
What type of impact can their self-destructive behavior have on their overall life?
“Self-destructive behavior can have immediate and long-term negative effects on a person’s life. The immediate impact is felt each time a teen loses their life as a result of an “accidental” overdose, driving too fast, or committing suicide. While these may look like isolated incidents, it is more likely that they are not.”
“Self destructive behaviors can become ingrained patterns of behavior that are difficult to change, particularly if they are tension relieving. As the pattern becomes more and more entrenched, the teen tends to expend more and more energy on maintaining the self-destructive pattern of behavior and have less time and energy to devote to more positive and adaptive patterns of behavior. This is why teens engaging in self-destructive behaviors often experience a decline in academic performance, an increase in family and peer problems and have less motivation to pursue other interests. Dependence on any particular self-destructive behavior pattern also wreaks havoc on a teen’s developing sense of self, often leaving them feeling worthless, powerless and out of control. As a result, appropriate treatment and intervention is imperative in preventing long-lasting physical, social, and emotional consequences.”
What can a parent do to help their teen manage their feelings of self-destructive behavior?
“First and foremost, parents need to understand that self-destructive behavior is a serious issue, signaling the existence of a deeper underlying issue that has not yet been resolved. Therefore, it is imperative that parents consult a professional immediately if they suspect that their teen may be engaging in self-destructive behaviors. Given that secrecy is common among teenagers, it is not unusual for self-destructive behavior patterns to be in existence for some time before parents become aware of them. Consulting with someone who specializes in evaluating and treating adolescents can help determine the seriousness of a teen’s behavior while at the same time providing suggestions for treatment.”
“In terms of practical advice to parents, I typically encourage parents to speak directly and openly with their teenager about the idea that self destructive behavior (i.e. cutting) can be related to feeling angry, sad, or upset. Parents are encouraged to ask their teen if anything is bothering them, but should be prepared for their teen to deny that anything is wrong. Having a teen deny that a problem exists is a typical response. It may be useful to let the teen know that you would like to work on helping them feel safe enough to talk more openly. Parents may want to ask their teen if they have any ideas about what would make it easier for them to share their feelings. Teens are notorious for having limited verbiage and vague responses'”this should be understood within the context of their developmental stage and be expected. Feelings of embarrassment, shame, fear, and insecurity can further contribute to this indifferent facade. Asking the teen if they would be willing to write a letter about how they have been feeling can be a first step in opening up lines of communication. This approach may not only be helpful in minimizing a teen’s anxiety, but may prove useful in providing a parent with information not otherwise communicated.”
“Helping teens learn more adaptive ways of managing the stress in their lives can be particularly helpful. Therefore, parents may want to talk with their teen about different options for stress reduction and encourage them to participate in trying several types of activities until finding one that works for them. For teenagers exhibiting a physical self-injurious behavior, having them participate in an activity which can allow them some sort of physical release can be particularly useful, such as karate, soccer or running. Other teens may experience tension reduction by listening to music, lighting candles, writing in a journal or enjoying a relaxing bubble bath.”
What type of professional help is available for a teen that is in engaged in self- destructive behavior?
“Parents are highly encouraged to contact a therapist who specializes in adolescents if they suspect that their teenager is engaging in self-destructive behavior. Early intervention is extremely important in eradicating patterns of self-destructive behavior. Therapy cannot only help uncover the origins of the behavior but it can also help educate a teen about more adaptive ways of coping and managing stress. A thorough psychological assessment may also be beneficial in clarifying a teen’s level of cognitive, academic, social and emotional functioning. This type of assessment can be useful in that it can identify a child’s strengths and weaknesses, provide a diagnosis and make specific treatment recommendations aimed at reducing the self-destructive behaviors.”
“There are also several evidenced-based treatment modalities that have been successful in treating teenagers. Seeking safety is a treatment modality that was specifically designed for teenagers engaging in high-risk behaviors who have a history of trauma and/or substance abuse. The treatment is available as a book, and has been conducted in both individual and group settings. For more information about this treatment, parents should visit their website at www.seekingsafety.org. Another evidenced-based treatment modality that has been successful in helping teenagers cope and recover from a traumatic event or history of trauma is Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT). For more information please visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network www.nctsnet.org. Each of these treatment modalities will provide options for working with a distressed teenager engaging in self-destructive behavior. Most importantly, however, treating the behavior early often ensures the best future prognosis.”
Thank you Brette for doing the interview on how parents can help their teen manage feelings of self destructive behavior. For more information on Brette Genzel-Derman or her work you can check out her website on www.drgenzelderman.com.
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