Help Your Teen Stop Cutting and Learn Healthier Coping Mechanisms

Sad female teenager
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What Cutting Is

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 and affect up to 16 percent of teenagers and young adults.

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 14 or 15, during the early high school years. 

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 an eating disorder
  • 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 her about it gently. If the answer is yes, it's important not to get mad or overreact. You don't want to make her 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).

Treatments for Cutting

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.

And cutting can 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. 

  • Psychotherapist: 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 basically a stranger might be easier for your child. 
  • Psychiatrist: 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 antidepressant 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.


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts for Families. Self-Injury In Adolescents.

Nonsuicidal self-harm in youth: a population-based survey. Nixon MK - CMAJ - 29-JAN-2008; 178(3): 306-12

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