How to Help Teens Who Cut Themselves

Self-harm is fairly common among teens.
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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 injuring himself on purpose, it can be terrifying.

Self-harm can be fairly common among teens. Studies consistently estimate that 15 to 20% of teens harm themselves on purpose. But the good news is, you can take steps to reduce cutting by helping your teen find healthier coping strategies.

Why Do Teens Cut Themselves?

The physical act of hurting her body provides a temporary sense of emotional relief. A teen who cuts herself now focuses on the injury as the reason for her pain and feels a sense of control. In addition, the injury releases endorphins into the blood stream, which creates a sense of well-being.

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.

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.

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

How to Help a Teen Who Self-Harms

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?"

3. 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. 

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.  

7. Be patient with your teen. Self-harming behavior takes time to develop and will take 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.

Updated by Amy Morin, LCSW.

Sources:

Martin J, Bureau J-F, Yurkowski K, Fournier TR, Lafontaine M-F, Cloutier P. Family-based risk factors for non-suicidal self-injury: Considering influences of maltreatment, adverse family-life experiences, and parent–child relational risk.Journal of Adolescence 2016;49:170–180. 

P.L. Plener, T.S. Schumacher, L.M. Munz, R.C. Groschwitz. The longitudinal course of non-suicidal self-injury and deliberate self-harm: a systematic review of the literatureBorderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 2 (2015), p. 2.

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