When teens cut themselves or inflict self-harm in any way, parents’ primary fear is that they are suicidal. In most cases of teen cutting, however, that is not the case. This form of self-harm is typically an unhealthy and dangerous response to emotions and impulses that teens aren’t able to navigate in a healthy way.
However, just because teen cutting is not a suicide attempt doesn’t mean it can be ignored. Teen self-harm is usually a sign of an underlying mental health issue, and is linked to a higher risk of suicide attempts in future. That’s why it’s vital for parents and caregivers to understand the differences and associations between cutting and suicidal behavior.
Teen Self-Harm vs. Suicidality
A recent analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control reveals that teen girls intentionally injure themselves at more than twice the rate of boys. Teens typically engage in different types of self-harm as a way to find relief from overwhelming emotions, such as anger, grief, anxiety, fear, and hurt. In a survey of nearly a thousand 14- to 16-year-olds, the majority chose “to get relief from a terrible state of mind” as the reason why they engaged in teen self-harm. In some cases, teens may be emotionally numb, and cutting allows them to feel something.
While most cases of NSSI are not suicide attempts, teens who self-harm are more likely to progress to suicidal behavior. According to one study, up to 70 percent of teens who self-harm have attempted suicide at another time, and 55 percent have made multiple suicide attempts. That’s why it’s so important to understand the root cause of a teen’s self-harming behavior.
7 Signs That a Teen Is Self-Harming
- Cuts, scratches, bruises or other wounds, often on the wrists, arms, thighs, or torso, for which the teen has no clear explanation
- Wearing clothes that cover up the skin, such as long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather; or using multiple Band-Aids to cover injuries
- Expressing feelings of anxiety, stress, hopelessness, or worthlessness, possibly related to a trigger event such a a breakup or stressful event at school
- Blood stains on bedding, clothing, towels, or tissues
- Having sharp objects in their possession, including razors, safety pins, nail scissors, knives, needles, shards of glass, or bottle caps
- Increased isolation and social withdrawal, including spending long periods of time alone, often in the bathroom or bedroom
- Avoiding situations in which they need to reveal skin, such as swimming or changing in a locker room.
The Underlying Reasons Why Teens Cut
The clinical term for teen cutting and other forms of self-harm is nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI). NSSI is not a psychiatric diagnosis but rather a symptom of an underlying mental health issue, such as
- Anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
- Borderline personality disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Conduct disorder
- Oppositional defiant disorder.
Parents who are familiar with the signs that their child may be inflicting self-harm will be better prepared to help their teen.
How Emotional Dysregulation Can Lead to Teen Cutting
Each child is unique, and every situation is different, but most teens who self-harm suffer from some form of emotional dysregulation. In other words, the teen is experiencing an overwhelming amount of emotional stimuli and doesn’t have the tools or executive functioning to regulate these emotions.
That’s due in part to the fact that the teen brain is still developing, and the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that controls emotion regulation—is the last area to fully mature. The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for impulse control, and research shows that teen self-harm is directly linked to impulsivity.
Consequently, teen emotions can take the form of volatile mood swings, aggression and violence, or excessive tearfulness. In addition to self-harm, teens may manifest emotional dysregulation through eating disorders, substance abuse, or risky behaviors such as unsafe sex.
What Can I Do to Keep My Child Safe in Our Home?
If a teen has self-harmed, it is crucial for parents to try to keep them safe. The behavior will often occur in a bedroom or bathroom, in isolation, so parents need to be aware of possible tools used for cutting, including:
However, helicopter parenting or merely removing the tools or the possibility of isolation will not necessarily be enough to prevent teen cutting or other forms of self-harm. Moreover, this is not an effective long-term solution to addressing the distress a teen who self-harms is experiencing.
What Should Parents Do When a Teen Cuts?
First, when a child has harmed themselves, it is crucial to seek medical attention immediately. Trained medical personnel will be more likely to determine if the child’s actions were based on self-harm or a desire to take their own life.
In the longer term, it is imperative that families seek professional support to help their teenager heal underlying mental health challenges. In therapy, outpatient treatment, or residential treatment, teens will have the opportunity to
- Learn healthier coping mechanisms
- Enhance emotion-regulation skills
- Uncover past trauma at the root of mental health issues
- Build executive functioning, including impulse control
- Use Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, one of the most effective modalities for teens who self-harm, to improve distress tolerance, emotional self-regulation, and effective communication skills
- Strengthen parent-child relationships, so teens feel safe to reach out to parents for support when they are struggling rather than turning to cutting as a form of emotional release.
Treatment for Teen Cutting and Other Self-Harming Behaviors
Ultimately, teens who cut need additional support to address the underlying causes of self-harm. Therapy or a treatment program, either outpatient or residential, supports successful healing from the trauma, depression, and anxiety that catalyze teen cutting.
At Newport Academy, we help teens recover from mental health conditions while learning healthy coping skills for stress and self-regulation. Reach out to us today to learn more about Newport Academy’s integrated approach to adolescent treatment.
F1000Res. 2019 Oct; 8 : F1000.
Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2017 Apr;26(4): 387–402.
Pediatrics. 2018 Apr; 141(4): e20173517.
Crisis. 2016 May; 37(3): 176–83.
Psychiatry Res. 2006 Sep; 144(1): 65–72.