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Parenting Your Teenager: Self-Decorating or Self-Harm - How to Tell the Difference

Q. I need your help with a question about my teen-age daughter. Getting her ears pierced was no big deal, but then she wanted to get a belly button ring and a tongue ring. We let her get the belly button one but not the tongue one.

Just the other night, we walked into her room and she was scratching on her leg with a pair of scissors. She was drawing a little blood, but she says it's no big deal and no different from getting her belly button pierced and that her best friend does it, too.

This does not sound right, but I don't want to overreact. Is it the same? Also, does this mean she is suicidal, and should I tell her friend's parents about what is going on?

A. I applaud you for going with your instincts and not buying the con that cutting yourself with scissors is just like a navel ring and everyone else is doing it.

It's not the same, and everyone else is not doing it.

Getting your ears, navel, tongue, lips, nose, etc., pierced for a ring, while it may look strange, is called self decorating.

What you caught your daughter doing is called self-harming.

From bobby socks to nose rings, teen-agers always have and always will decorate themselves. What scares some parents is that kids are running out of new ways to decorate themselves in ways that are shocking.

Body piercings and tattoos are the rage now. Each family needs to decide what is acceptable in the home.

I know some families that have made getting a navel ring a family event. I'm not necessarily recommending this across the board, but it seemed to work for them.

Cutting yourself is one of the most common forms of self-harm. Other common forms of self-harm include burning with lighters or matches, pulling out body hairs and picking at sores.

Signs and symptoms of self-harming behaviors include:

=>Finding sharp instruments (knives, razor blades, box cutters, even glass) hidden in their room, car or elsewhere.

=>Finding linens and clothes with blood stains, and the explanations don't make sense.

=>Unexplained hair loss, bald patches.

=>Cut and/or burn marks on legs and arms, which are the most typical places, though they can show up anywhere.

=>Frequent isolation in bedroom, bathroom or elsewhere.

=>Lots and lots of bracelets on the wrists, that NEVER come off in front of you

Self-harming goes way beyond self-decorating. It is hurting yourself to relieve emotional pain.

It's paradoxical, but self-harming is an attempt to deal with pain. The emotional logic goes something like this: "If I'm hurting physically, then maybe my feelings won't hurt so much."

There is a certain release and relief from the bad feelings that are experienced by the person self-harming. Those feelings are followed by guilt about what has been done. This sets up a vicious cycle of doing it again to stop feeling bad, guilt, etc.

A key question is: What is the person feeling that hurts so bad?

I urge parents to not take this stuff lightly and treat it like the serious problem that it is.

People who cut themselves or cause other physical harm to relieve emotional pain need help. I suggest you schedule an appointment with both your family physician and a family therapist who has experience treating these kind of problems.

You also asked if this could mean your daughter is suicidal. It's a crucial question, yet difficult to answer on the little I know.

According to the latest consumer update from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy "self-harming adolescents are rarely suicidal."

Yet, I urge parents to take anything that even looks a little bit like suicidal thinking or behavior very seriously; there is no margin for error.

Finally, many parents who discover negative information about other children struggle with whether they should notify their parents.

My rule of thumb is: If it were your child, would you want to know?

Of course you would.

Notifying other parents will not make you popular with your daughter, but there are more important issues here. It also can be intimidating. Some words you might want to use are: "Listen, Mr./Mrs. Smith. I've come across some information about your daughter that, if she were my child, I would want to know."

Leading parenting expert Jeff Herring is a teen and family therapist, parenting coach, speaker and syndicated parenting and relationship columnist. Jeff invites you to visit ParentingYourTeenager.com for 100's of tips and tools for parenting through the teenage years. You can also subscribe to his f'ree weekly internet newsletter "ParenitngYourTeenager."

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