How to Help Teens Who Cut Themselves

Teenage girl looking sad.
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Cutting is a form of self-injury that involves using sharp objects such as knives, razor blades, or scissors to make cuts, marks, or scratches on the body.

It can be hard to imagine why anyone would want to cut themselves or hurt themselves on purpose. And for parents who discover their teen is engaging in self-injury, it can be confusing, terrifying, and downright frustrating.

Self-harm can be fairly common among teens. Studies consistently estimate that 15 to 20% of teens harm themselves at one time or another. Fortunately, with support, most teens learn healthier coping skills and stop self-injury.

What Constitutes Self-Harm?

Self-harm describes any deliberate action intended to cause physical pain. Adolescent males engage in this behavior too, but it is most often females who hurt their bodies in an attempt to deal with difficult feelings or situations. Cutting or scratching the skin with razor blades or other sharp objects is the most common form of self-injury.

Other ways to self-harm include:

  • Burning the skin with a cigarette, match or lighter
  • Hitting the chest or extremities
  • Banging the head against the wall
  • Pulling hair from the head, or other places
  • Re-opening or picking at wounds
  • Biting or pinching the skin

Why Do Teens Cut Themselves?

Teens who hurt themselves aren't crazy and their self-injury doesn't mean they're suicidal. Instead, it just means they're having trouble coping with their pain in a healthy manner.

The physical act of hurting their bodies provides a temporary sense of emotional relief. A teen who cuts himself (or burns himself) begins to focus on the injury as the reason for the pain.

It also provides a sense of control. A teen who engages in self-injury is likely to feel like they can control the pain better. In addition, the injury releases endorphins into the bloodstream, which also provides a temporary boost of mood.

So a stressed-out teen may cut their arms as a way to relieve stress. Or a teen who is struggling to deal with a breakup may cut their chest as a way to experience physical pain, as opposed to just emotional pain.

If you or your teen are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How to Help a Teen Who Self-Harms

You may see scratches or cuts on a teen who is engaging in self-injury. You might notice bandages or your teen may wear long sleeves or cover their body even when it's hot outside.

If you suspect your teen is deliberately injuring themselves, it's important to intervene. These steps can help you start a discussion and find them the professional help they need.

  • Ask your teen directly if they are engaging in self-harm. Often the direct approach is the most effective. Be clear that your goal is to help them, not to judge or punish Ask, "Did you make those cuts on your arm on purpose?" or "Are you hurting yourself?"
  • Acknowledge your teen's pain. Telling a teen to stop or passing judgment won't be effective. Validate their feelings and express concern that they must be feeling really bad if they are hurting themselves. 
  • Identify activities your teen can do when they feel the urge to hurt themselves. Calling a friend, going for a walk, or drawing are just a few possible activities that could help your teen express their feelings in a healthier way.
  • Take steps to change your teens' self-harming behavior. Talk to your child's pediatrician to gain a referral to a therapist. A mental health professional can teach your teen healthier ways to regulate their emotions.
  • Help your teen create a list of people to talk to. Talking to trusted friends and family can help them cope with stress and reduce their self-injury. Make a list of caring adults your teen can reach out to, such as a grandparent, aunt or uncle, friends' parents, or neighbors that your teen can confide in.
  • Be patient with your teen. Self-harming behavior takes time to develop and will take the time to change. It is ultimately up to the teen to make the choice to help themselves.

With early identification, support from their family, and professional assistance, they can successfully stop self-harming.

How to Get Help

If your teenager is cutting or engaging in other forms of self-injury, it is important to seek professional help. Talk to a mental health professional who works with teens and understands the emotional challenges that lead to such behaviors. You might start by asking your child's pediatrician for a referral.

A mental health professional can evaluate your child and diagnose underlying medical conditions such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. 

Treatments may include psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Types of therapy that might be used include:

  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): This type of therapy was originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD), but it has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of non-suicidal self-injury.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy can help teens identify and change the negative thinking that contributes to cutting. It can also help people learn new coping skills to deal with stressful situations that might trigger cutting behaviors.
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): This type of therapy focused on improving social interactions and interpersonal relationships to help improve depression symptoms.
  • Family therapy: This approach involves strengthening family relationships and improving how family members relate to one another.

Medications may also be prescribed to treat symptoms of anxiety or depression. Some Lexapro (escitalopram), Prozac (fluoxetine), Cymbalta (duloxetine), and Zoloft (sertraline).

It is important to note that all antidepressants have an FDA black box safety warning about an increased risk of suicide in young people under the age of 25.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.