How to Help Teens Who Cut Themselves

Teenage girl looking sad.
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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 he 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 her arms as a way to relieve stress. Or a teen who is struggling to deal with a breakup may cut his chest as a way to experience physical pain, as opposed to just emotional pain.

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 her body even when it's hot outside.

If you suspect your teen is deliberately injuring herself, it's important to intervene. These steps can help you start a discussion and find her the professional help she needs.

1. Ask your teen directly if she is engaging in self-harm. Often the direct approach is the most effective. Be clear that your goal is to help her, not to judge or punish Ask, "Did you make those cuts on your arm on purpose?" or "Are you hurting yourself?"

2. Acknowledge your teen's pain. Telling a teen to stop or passing judgment won't be effective. Validate her feelings and express concern that she must be feeling really bad if she is hurting herself. 

3. Identify activities your teen can do when she feels the urge to hurt herself. Calling a friend, going for a walk, or drawing are just a few possible activities that could help your teen express her feelings in a healthier way.
4. 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 her emotions.

5. Help your teen create a list of people to talk to. Talking to trusted friends and family can help her cope with stress and reduce her 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.

6. Be patient with your teen. Self-harming behavior takes the time to develop and will take the time to change. It is ultimately up to the teen to make the choice to help herself.

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

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