Cutting and Self Harm- What Parents Need to Know

Self-harm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a good day, it can be difficult for parents to understand their teenagers.  The teen years can be a mix of intense emotions, physical changes, peer pressure, and hormonal overload that can leave teens feeling like visitors in their own bodies.  Lacking the emotional maturity and coping skills to deal with this onslaught, some teens turn to cutting and other destructive behaviors for relief.  For parents everywhere, this terrifying trend is impossible to understand.  To help, here are the basics.

What is Self Harm?

Any behavior that involves deliberately inflicting injury on your own body is considered self harm.  This includes behaviors like cutting, head banging, and burning.  Teenagers use these behaviors as coping strategies to deal with intense emotions that they don’t know how to handle.  It is important for parents to understand that self harm behaviors are not suicide attempts, although they can be a cry for help.

Common forms of self harm include severe scratching, cutting, poisoning, carving into skin, hitting, piercing the skin, biting, and burning.  It is common for people who self harm to use more than one method to cause injury.  The most common locations for self injury are those that are easily reached including legs, arms, and the front of the body.

Why Do Teens Hurt Themselves?

For some teens, self harm provides a respite of some sort.  It may be an outlet for intense emotional turmoil or it could offer a release of mounting tension.  In some teens it even brings a sense of calm and quiet.

Self harm can also be an expression of control in a world that feels completely of control or a distraction from emotional pain.  Teens may use self harm as a way to release emotions, to give their internal feelings an external representation.  In some cases, self harm is a cry for help, while in others it is simply a way to attract attention and manipulate other people.

What Causes it

There is no specific condition that causes teens to self harm.  While teens are the most prevalent sufferers, people of all ages may use self injury as a mechanism for dealing with difficult emotions. Self harm can also manifest in people who are suffering from mental illnesses like depression or eating disorders.

There are, however, some risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a teenager turning to self harm as an emotional outlet.  These factors are:

  • Age – Teenagers in the highest risk age group
  • Mental Health – People who struggle to manage negative emotions, have difficulty with impulse control, and who suffer from specific mental illnesses are more prone to self harm.
  • Life Experiences – Teens who suffered abuse, neglect, or loss during their childhood are more likely than their peers to self harm.

What to Watch For

Most teens that self harm are secretive about their struggle because they are confused and ashamed by their own behavior.  Signs to watch out for are scars, cuts, scratches, wounds, burns, and broken bones.  Teens who wear long sleeves and pants in summer or claim clumsiness as the reason for their injuries may be trying to hide their self injuries.

How to Get Help

If you have a child that is harming themself, consult your medical practitioner and request an evaluation.  These professionals can help guide you in raising the issue with your child and getting them the help they need.  Psychotherapy is the most common treatment for self harm which may include individual counseling for your teen and family group.


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