Cutting and Self-Harm Behaviors in Teens

Cutting is a type of self-harm in which teens deliberately cut or scratch themselves with knives, razor blades, or other sharp objects, but not with any intention of trying to commit suicide.

Other self-harm behaviors can include head-banging, branding or burning their skin, overdosing on medications, and strangulation.

These behaviors are more common than you might think with an estimated range of 6.4% to 30.8% of teens admitting to trying to harm themselves.

Why Teens Cut Themselves

Parents and pediatricians often have a hard time understanding why teens would cut or do other things to harm themselves. Not surprisingly, cutting is a complex behavioral problem and is often associated with a variety of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Teens who cut themselves are more likely to have friends who cut themselves, low self-esteem, a history of abuse, and/or thoughts of committing suicide.

While it is sometimes seen as an attention-seeking behavior, cutting is a way for kids to release tension, relieve feelings of sadness or anger, or distract themselves from their problems.

Of course, any relief is only temporary. While some teens who cut may have a friend who cuts or may have read about it or seen it on TV, most kids who start cutting say that they were not influenced by anyone or anything else and came up with the idea themselves.

Signs of Cutting

Cutting is most common in teens and young adults—especially among teen girls—and often starts around age 12-14. 

Teens who cut themselves are usually described as being impulsive. Some are also described as being overachievers.

In terms of warning signs and red flags, your teen may be cutting if she:

  • Always wears long-sleeved shirts or long pants (even when the weather is warm) to cover new cutting marks or older scars on her arms, wrists, or thighs (those are common areas of the body where cutting occurs)
  • Routinely has suspicious cuts, scratches, or burns on her belly, legs, wrists, or arms
  • Is developing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or alcohol abuse
  • Has trouble controlling her emotions (like if your teen doesn't know how to handle herself when she feels sad or angry)

If you think that your child is cutting, ask them about it gently. If the answer is yes, it's important not to get mad or overreact. You don't want to make them feel bad for doing it. Keep in mind that cutting is often a symptom of a larger problem, and you, as a parent, can help your child figure out the underlying cause by seeking professional help (more on that below).


It is critical to seek treatment for your teen right away if she is cutting, both to help treat any underlying psychiatric problems, like depression or anxiety and to prevent cutting from becoming a bad habit. The longer a teen cuts herself, the harder it becomes to break the habit.

Cutting can also lead to more problems later in life. In fact, the S.A.F.E. Alternatives (Self Abuse Finally Ends) treatment program describes cutting as 'ultimately a dangerous and futile coping strategy which interferes with intimacy, productivity, and happiness.'

These are some forms of treatment that may help your teen quit cutting and learn healthier coping strategies.


Teens who cut should be evaluated and treated by counselors or psychologists who have experience in treating teens with this particular condition. These types of professionals are skilled at talk therapy and can provide a safe, non-judgmental space in which your teen can speak openly about the problems that she's facing.

Remember, it can sometimes be hard for a teen to completely open up to a parent, so talking to someone who is removed from their everyday lives might be easier for your child.


An evaluation by a child psychiatrist (a medical doctor who can prescribe drugs) might also be a good idea for further treatment ideas, which might include antidepressants when necessary.

Treatment Center

You might look for a treatment center in your area that specializes in cutting. The name of the treatment center might include the phrases "self-harm," "self-injury," or "self-mutilation."

Support Group

Your teen might also find help by joining a self-harm support group. Meeting others who cut might help her feel less alone and might help her learn how others have successfully stopped cutting themselves.

Treatment for cutting will likely focus on helping the teen develop healthier coping mechanisms when faced with feelings of anger, stress, or sadness. It will also help boost a teen's self-esteem, help manage any underlying psychiatric problems, and help make sure that the teen isn't having thoughts of suicide.

If you 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.

3 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.
  1. Monto MA, Mcree N, Deryck FS. Nonsuicidal Self-Injury Among a Representative Sample of US Adolescents, 2015. Am J Public Health. 2018;108(8):1042-1048. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304470

  2. Lenkiewicz K, Racicka E, Bruńska A. Self-injury- placement in mental disorders classifications, risk factors and primary mechanisms. Review of the literature. Psychiatria Polska. 2017;51(2):323-334. doi:10.12740/pp/62655

  3. Stallard P, Spears M, Montgomery AA, Phillips R, Sayal K. Self-harm in young adolescents (12-16 years): onset and short-term continuation in a community sample. BMC Psychiatry. 2013;13:328. doi:10.1186/1471-244X-13-328

Additional Reading

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.