[Book Review] Helping Teens Who Cut by Dr. Michael Hollander, PhD

BY Garret Bolthouse

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Over the last decade of ministering to teens I have witnessed an increased awareness and interest in cutting, particularly among younger teens. Most teenagers are aware of cutting and know of at least one peer who has experimented or struggled with cutting. The “barrier to entry” has lowered considerably over time because knowledge and acceptance of the practice has become more prevalent in teenage culture.

For parents, it can be an extremely fearful moment when they find out their teenager is harming their body, but most don’t understand why their child is participating in such self-destructive behavior, and are bewildered as to how to best help their child. Parents’ need for quick action and extreme measures can further exasperate a teen, causing deep stress and anxiety for the entire family.

Dr. Michael Hollander offers us some hope and guidance for these parents of teens who struggle with cutting in his book, Helping Teens Who Cut: Understanding and Ending Self-Injury (2008). Dr. Hollander is a recognized authority on teenage cutting and has run an outpatient clinic specially built to help teenagers who cut in Massachusetts for many years. Specifically, he has been working from a practical model — finding out what works, and giving kids the skills they need to help them reduce their self-harming behavior.

Dr. Hollander writes, “Recognizing the function of these kids’ self-harm… is the new understanding that makes it possible to help them give up this behavior.” Hollander suggests that most kids cut because they do not have the necessary skills to sooth themselves when they become emotionally compromised. While it may seem counterintuitive to parents that self-harm could be soothing, research has shown that in fact it can have a soothing and focusing effect, though the effect is reduced over time with recurrent use. Teens cut simply because, “it works,” at least temporarily. The goal is to help teenagers find more sustainable and productive ways to sooth the intense negative emotions they may be experiencing.

Hollander writes very clearly and concisely, offering up many real-world examples and actual discussions from therapy sessions he’s conducted with individuals and families over the years. From the outset, the book helps readers understand what cutting is and what it’s not, why it is such a draw for some teens, what therapy will look like for your child and your family, and he also allays some of the fears many parents have regarding the correlation between suicidal ideation and cutting.

What I appreciate most about this book is that Hollander offers some real-world practical tools that you can start using today. He also stresses that you cannot do this alone — therapy will most likely be necessary for your teenager, but he describes the processes used in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) in a way that allows the reader to see its practical benefits.

Many of the therapeutic boarding schools and residential treatment centers we work with utilize DBT or similar methods as a part of therapy. The reality is that there is no “quick fix” for your teen who may be struggling with this behavior, and it can take a significant amount of time and patience on both you and your teen’s part. I personally came away from this book with some great insight and a deeper understanding of what drives struggling teens to cutting. I would recommend the book to any family. Once you gain a solid understanding of what is happening to your teenager, you will be able to better manage and help move you, your family, and your teen toward healthier thinking.

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