How to Help Teens Who Cut Themselves

Helping Teens Who Cut

How to Help Teens Who Cut Themselves

Cutting — using a sharp object a razorblade, knife, or scissors to make marks, cuts, or scratches on one's own body — is a form of self-injury.

It can be hard to understand why anyone would hurt himself or herself on purpose. Learning that your own teen is doing it can leave you feeling shocked and upset — and not sure what to do or how to help.

About Cutting

For most, cutting is an attempt to interrupt strong emotions and pressures that seem impossible to tolerate. It can be related to broader emotional issues that need attention. Most of the time, cutting is not a suicide attempt.

Cutting affects many teens and preteens — even beyond those who self-injure. Many teens worry about a friend who cuts or face pressure from peers to try cutting as a daring thing to do.

In many cases, cutting and the emotions that go along with it are something teens struggle with alone. But because of growing awareness, more teens can get the help they need.

Parents can help teens who cut — and the earlier, the better. Cutting can be habit-forming, and sadly, many people underestimate the risks of getting seriously sick or hurt that go along with it.

What Parents Can Do

If your teen is cutting, there ways to help. By coping with your own feelings, learning about cutting, finding professional help, and just being there to love and believe in your teen, you'll provide the calm, steady support that he or she needs.

Accept your own emotions. If you know or suspect that your teen is cutting, it's natural to feel a whole range of emotions. You might feel shocked, angry, sad, disappointed, confused, or scared.

You might feel hurt that your teen didn't come to you for help or feel guilty that you didn't know about it. All of these emotions are completely understandable.

But it's not your fault, and it's not your teen's fault.

Take time to identify your own feelings and find a way to express them. This might mean having a good cry, talking with a friend, or going for a walk to let off steam or quietly reflect. If you feel overwhelmed, talking with a therapist can help you sort things through and gain some perspective so that you can provide the support your teen needs.

Learn all you can about cutting. Find out all you can about cutting, why teens do it, and what can help them stop. Some teens cut because of peer pressure — and once they start, they can't easily stop.

Other teens feel pressure to be perfect and struggle to accept failures or mistakes. And still others contend with powerful moods anger, sadness, worthlessness, and despair that feel hard to control or too heavy to bear.

Cutting is sometimes the result of trauma and painful experiences that no one knows about.

It can hurt to think that your child might experience any of these feelings. As difficult as it is, try to keep in mind that exploring what pressures prompt your teen to self-injure is a necessary step toward healing.

Communication Is Key

Talk to your child. It can be hard to talk about such a painful topic. You may not know what you're going to say. That's OK. What you say won't be nearly as important as how you say it. To open the conversation, you might simply say that you know about the cutting, and then convey your concern, love, and your willingness to help your child stop.

It will probably be hard for your teen to talk about it, too. He or she might feel embarrassed or ashamed, or worried about how you'll react or what the consequences might be. You can help ease these worries by asking questions and listening to what your teen has to say without reacting with punishment, scolding, or lectures.

Let your teen know that cutting is often related to painful experiences or intense pressures, and ask what difficult issues your teen may be facing. Your teen might not be ready to talk about it or even know why he or she cuts. Even if that's the case, explain that you want to understand and find ways to help.

Don't be surprised if your teen resists your efforts to talk about cutting. He or she might deny cutting, get angry or upset, cry, yell, or storm off. A teen might clam up or say that you just don't understand. If something this happens, try to stay calm and patient. Don't give up — find another time to communicate and try again.

Seek professional help. It's important to seek assistance from a qualified mental health professional who can help you understand why your teen cuts, and also help your teen heal old hurts and develop new coping skills.

Therapy can allow teens to tell their stories, put their difficult experiences into words, and learn skills to deal with stresses that are part of life.

Therapy also can help identify any underlying mental health condition that needs evaluation and treatment.

For many teens, cutting is a clue to depression or bipolar (mood) problems, unresolved grief, compulsive behaviors, or struggles with perfectionism.

It's important to find a therapist your teen can feel open and comfortable with. If you need help finding someone, your doctor or a school counselor might be able to provide guidance.

Staying Positive

Offer encouragement and support. While your teen is getting professional help, stay involved in the process as much as possible. Ask the therapist to guide you in how to talk with and support your teen. And ask your teen how you can best help.

For example, it may help to:

  • Let your teen know you'll be there to talk to when feelings are painful or troubles seem too hard to bear.
  • Help your teen create a plan for what to do instead of cutting when pressures get strong.
  • Encourage your teen to talk about everyday experiences and put feelings, needs, disappointments, successes, and opinions into words.
  • Be there to listen, comfort, and help your teen think of solutions to problems and offer support when troubles arise.
  • Spend time together doing something fun, relaxing, or just hanging out. You might take a walk, go for a drive, share a snack, or run some errands.
  • Focus on positives. While it helps to talk about troubles, avoid dwelling on them. Make sure what's good about life gets airtime, too.

Set a good example. Be aware that you can influence how your child responds to stress and pressure by setting a good example.

Notice how you manage your own emotions and deal with everyday frustrations, stress, and pressure. Notice whether you tend to put others down, or are self-critical or quick to anger.

Consider making changes in any patterns you wouldn't want your teen to imitate.

Be patient and be hopeful. Finding out that your teen is cutting may be the beginning of a long process. It can take time to stop cutting — and sometimes a teen doesn't want to stop or isn't ready to make the changes it involves.

To stop cutting takes motivation and determination. It also takes self-awareness and practicing new skills to manage pressures and emotional distress. These things can take time and often require professional help.

As a parent, you might need to be patient. With the proper guidance, love, and support, know that your teen can stop cutting and learn healthy ways to cope.


Cutting and Self-Harm: Why Teens Cut in the Digital Age

How to Help Teens Who Cut Themselves

Everyone experiences stress, anxiety, and low moods at times. But stress and emotional shifts can feel different for different people, particularly for teens navigating the murky waters of adolescence.

While some teens might feel jumpy or afraid when they’re under stress, others might feel elevated frustration and anger, overwhelming sadness, or fear and anxiety.

Some teens turn to self-harm to cope with these complicated emotions.

From 2009 to 2015, emergency rooms in America saw a sharp rise in treatment of girls and young women between the ages of 10 and 24 who intentionally injured themselves. JAMA reports that within that hike of 8.4 percent of ER visits over six years, among girls between the ages of 10 and 14, rates of ER visits for self-harm surged 18.8 percent yearly between 2009 and 2015.

What is Self-Harm or Cutting?

Self-harm or cutting means hurting yourself on purpose. Cutting into the skin is the most widely known form of self-harm, but burning the skin, picking at wounds to prevent healing, picking at skin, biting or scratching at the skin, ingesting poison or pills without intent to die by suicide, and pulling out hair are all methods of self-harm.

Self-harm is a sign of emotional distress. Teens engage in self-harm to relieve feelings of stress, anxiety, or emotional pain. Self-harm can relieve tension momentarily, which gives teens the false belief that this maladaptive coping strategy actually works.

The physical pain they inflict numbs the emotional pain they experience, and they feel this potentially dangerous practice is helpful.

In reality, it’s a temporary escape that can result in a lifetime of maladaptive coping if they don’t learn how to manage their emotional pain.

Teens who self-harm are either looking to release tension or looking to feel something. Some might use it to distract themselves, to avoid processing their emotions, to get attention from adults or peers, or to punish themselves. Though teens who engage in this behavior often describe a temporary feeling of relief, it can also result in an overwhelming feeling of shame.

Article continues below

Why Do Teens Cut?

Self-harm is not a mental disorder, but it is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder. It also indicates a lack of effective coping skills. Other risk factors include a history of trauma, neglect, or abuse.

Self-harm might begin with feelings of anger, frustration, or emotional pain. In some cases, the self-injury stimulates the body’s pain-killing hormones and provides a temporary feeling of uplifted mood. In other cases, teens might turn to cutting to feel pain in an effort to get away from a feeling of emotional numbness.

Following cutting, teens can experience feelings of shame and guilt. This perpetuates the cycle of overwhelming emotions followed by negative coping strategies. It can become a dangerous cycle that is difficult to break.

Self-harm is not the same as suicidal behavior, but there is an elevated risk of suicidal behavior for teens who self-harm.

Does Social Media Trigger Self-Harm?

Despite efforts by social media sites to curb posting images, videos, and other disturbing content that promotes or normalizes self-harms, and clear guidelines (if you read the guidelines), images and content continue to emerge.

If you search for #cutting on Instagram, for example, a pop-up window appears on your screen to warn you about content within the hashtag ask if you need help. This is a step in the right direction.

The problem, however, is that it’s easy to decline the offer and proceed to the potentially triggering content.

Teens sometimes turn to social media to find support, but they also turn to social media to validate or normalize their self-harm.

There are hashtags specifically created to help people who self-harm support one another in making positive choices when they feel the urge, but there are also hashtags that show some fairly disturbing content.

Given that teens are savvy social media users, they also create new hashtags to get around banned hashtags or hashtags that are watched by social media sites. While #selfharm might be on the radar of social media sites, #selfharmmmm might not.

It’s difficult to draw a direct link between social media use and exacerbated self-harm behaviors among teens without sufficient data, but self-harm hashtags and communities online certainly can normalize the behavior.

How to Help a Teen Who Self-Harms

Teens who self-harm are depressed or overwhelmed by anxiety, stress, or pressure. They also tend to be skilled at hiding their pain from friends, parents, teachers, and coaches. They can post anonymously online to find support and a community.

If they find a recovery community, they can share their experiences through journaling, messaging, or even art. This can be helpful for teens.

If, on the other hand, they stumble upon on a community that supports the self-harm behavior, it can result in teens feeling helpless and continuing the behavior.

Teens who self-harm need treatment. The first step is to seek a referral for a psychiatrist or psychotherapist who specializes in adolescents and self-harm. Depending on the underlying triggers and emotions beneath the self-harm behaviors, there are different types of therapeutic interventions:

• Psychodynamic therapy helps people explore past experiences and emotions• Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on recognizing negative thought patterns and learning positive alternatives• Dialectical behavior therapy can help teens learn positive coping strategies

If there is an underlying anxiety or depressive disorder, medication might be prescribed. Group work can be beneficial in helping teens connect with other teens and support one another through the recovery process.


Self-harm and teenagers

How to Help Teens Who Cut Themselves

Self-harm is when people deliberately hurt themselves as a way of coping with painful or strong emotions. It’s a way of trying to get control over the feelings or relief from them.

For some people, the attempt to control or stop feelings through self-harm is actually a way of trying to heal themselves. Other people self-harm so they can ‘feel something’ rather than feeling nothingness or emptiness. Some people self-harm to express feelings of hopelessness, seek help, influence other people’s behaviour, or to ‘get back at’ others.

Self-harm is generally a sign that a person is in deep distress.

Self-harm needs to be taken seriously. It can become a habit or a compulsion. Repeated self-harm can lead to serious injuries, scarring, medical conditions and accidental death. And people who self-harm are at increased risk of attempting suicide.

Self-harm: how it happens

Self-harm happens in different ways, some more obvious and serious than others. Forms of self-harm include:

  • cutting, scratching, carving, branding or marking the body
  • picking at scabs so they don’t heal
  • pulling hair
  • burning or grazing yourself
  • biting, bruising or hitting yourself
  • hitting a part of your body on something hard.

Digital self-harm or self-cyberbullying is when teenagers create alternative online identities for themselves on social media sites and post cruel comments about themselves. The alternative identities might also get cruel comments from other people.

Some teenagers and young people deal with strong emotions in less obvious but still serious ways. These include binge-drinking, taking a lot of drugs, having unsafe sex or starving themselves.

Signs of self-harm

Young people who self-harm sometimes try to hide it. They’re often ashamed of their behaviour and worry that people will be angry with them, reject them or not understand why they’re self-harming.

If you’re concerned that your child might be self-harming, here are some signs to watch out for.

Behaviour signs
Your child might:

  • have changes in their sleeping or eating patterns
  • lose interest in activities they usually enjoy, or stop seeing friends
  • avoid activities swimming, where their legs, arms or torso can be seen, or wear clothes that cover their arms and legs
  • skip school or have a drop in performance at school
  • hide objects razor blades, stencil knives, lighters and matches.

Emotional signs
Your child might:

  • have big changes in mood
  • be irritable a lot of the time
  • have ongoing temper outbursts
  • feel sad, empty or hopeless
  • feel worthless or very guilty
  • stop caring about their appearance.

Physical signs
Your child might:

  • have injuries that they can’t or won’t explain
  • be agitated
  • seem very slow or tired or have very little energy.

If your child is self-harming, it's important to step in early and encourage your child to get professional support. With this support, your child can learn positive ways of handling strong feelings. This can break the self-harm cycle and prevent future self-harming.

If your child is self-harming: what to do

If you find out your child is self-harming, you might feel afraid, guilty, shocked, panicked or even angry.

It can be hard to understand what’s going on and why – and your child might not have the words to tell you. But by staying calm, being respectful, not judging and actively listening, you might get some insight into your child’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour and some ideas about how you can help.

The most important thing is letting your child know that strong feelings are normal – but they’re also hard to have. And when you’re in your teens, things can seem even harder.

If you find your child self-harming

If you find your child in the act of self-harming, it’s best to speak calmly, directly and without judgment. You might say something , ‘I can see that you’re very upset. I hadn’t realised things had built up so much. You can talk to me about this. I won’t get angry at you’.

It’s best to avoid reacting with anger or threats. Saying that your child is just doing it for attention won’t help either. Most self-harm isn’t about getting attention.

It’s common for people to be ‘zoned out’ or unresponsive during the act of self-harm. If you find your child this, say your child’s name calmly and quietly and ask your child to tell you where they are. Ask your child if you can get help.

Provide first aid for any cuts or injuries in a calm way without fuss. Get medical attention for anything that looks serious. This can show your child that their body is important and worth caring for.

You might say something , ‘I’d to help you heal those cuts’ or ‘Let’s get some antiseptic to help those cuts heal quickly’.

Talking about self-harming

You can ask your child some questions about the self-harm, bearing in mind that people who self-harm might feel ashamed about it. That’s why it’s important to stay calm, not judge and listen silently without interrupting.

For example:

  • ‘I noticed the scars on your arm. I hope it’s OK to say that. Can you tell me about the times when you hurt yourself?’
  • ‘I can see that you’re very upset. You might be scared. I’m scared too. Together we can work this out.’
  • ‘The fact that you’re self-harming tells me you’re very upset. You might not the fact that I’ve found out. I’m not going to ask you a lot of questions but I do want to help – when you’re ready.’

If you think your child needs urgent medical attention – for example, because of serious wounds or an overdose, or because they’re feeling suicidal – call 000 for an ambulance or take your child to an emergency department.

Getting help for self-harming teenagers

Your child might be able to stop self-harming on their own, but support from a professional a GP, counsellor or psychologist is important.

A health professional might recommend different therapies depending on your child’s needs. Treatment might include psychological therapy or counselling and parent or family therapy.

Counselling can help teenagers understand why they’re self-harming, what triggers the self-harming and how to stop. It might include helping teenagers to understand and manage strong emotions and learn more effective ways of managing and expressing strong thoughts and feelings.

If your child isn’t comfortable seeing a health professional, you can suggest they use online or phone support services  Lifeline, Kids Helpline – Teens and eheadspace.

Looking after yourself

It’s important to look after yourself, especially your physical and emotional wellbeing. This can help you stay calm and consistent when things get tough, which is good for your child too.

  • Ask for help from family, friends or members of your support network. You can ask them to give you a call or send you a text, or to look after your other children while you take some time out for yourself.
  • Make some time every day to be on your own to read a book, watch a TV show or write about your thoughts and feelings. Start with five minutes at the end of the day if that’s all you have.
  • Make time for some physical activity – for example, walking, yoga or swimming. A bit of exercise can give you more energy for supporting your child.
  • Seek help for yourself if you’re distressed, or you just want to talk about the effect of your child’s behaviour on you. Your GP, a psychologist or a counsellor is a good person to talk to about this.

Looking after yourself also gives your child an example of how it’s good to seek help when you’re distressed.


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