Cutting in Teens--

Question: My teen cuts herself.  Is she psychotic?  Is this a suicide

Answer: NO. Self-injury is just a weird coping strategy, a way to stay
alive.  Teenagers who inflict physical harm on themselves are often doing
it in an attempt to reduce emotional stress - it's a way to keep from killing themselves.  They
release unbearable feelings and pressures through self-harm, and that relieves their urge toward
suicide.  And, although some teenagers who self-injure do later attempt suicide, they almost
always use a method different from their preferred method of self-harm.


  • they may have difficulty talking about their feelings
  • they may feel like the "steam" in the "pressure cooker" has been released following the act  
    of hurting themselves
  • they may feel hurt, angry, fearful and/or resentful
  • they may have learned from an abusive parent that certain feelings weren't allowed
  • they may have been severely punished for expressing certain thoughts and feelings
  • they may not have had any good role models for coping
  • they may have problems in serotonin levels that predisposes them to self-injury by making
    them more aggressive and impulsive
  • they may belief their feelings are bad or wrong
  • they discovered that self-injury reduces their level of distress

Most teens hide their wounds and scars because their self-harm is a shameful secret, and they
dread the consequences of discovery.


  • listen to your child and acknowledge her feelings
  • serve as a role model in the way you deal with stress/trauma, and how you respond to  
    other people
  • do not allow abuse or violence in the home
  • do not engage in acts of self-harm yourself

Forms of Self-injury:

·        cutting
·        burning
·        head-banging
·        carving
·        scratching
·        branding
·        marking
·        abrasions
·        biting
·        bruising
·        hitting
·        picking/pulling skin and hair
·        punching walls

Why does self-injury make some people feel better?

They feel a strong uncomfortable emotion, don't know how to handle it, don’t have a name for it,
and know that hurting themselves will reduce the emotional discomfort extremely quickly. They
may still feel bad, but they don't have that panicky-jittery-trapped feeling; it's a calm bad feeling.

What else can I, the parent, do about my child’s self-injury?

Have him or her read the following:

Deciding to stop self-injury is a very personal decision. You may have to consider it for a long
time before you decide that you're ready to commit to a life without scars and bruises. Don't be
discouraged if you conclude the time isn't right for you to stop yet.

Alderman (1997) suggests this useful checklist of things to ask yourself before you begin walking
away from self-harm. It isn't necessary that you be able to answer all of the questions "yes," but
the more of these things you can set up for yourself, the easier it will be to stop hurting yourself.

While it is not necessary that you meet all of these criteria before stopping self-injury, the more
of these statements that are true for you before you decide to stop this behavior, the better.

  • I have a solid emotional support system of friends, family, and/or professionals that I can
    use if I feel like hurting myself.
  • There are at least two people in my life that I can call if I want to hurt myself.
  • I feel at least somewhat comfortable talking about self-injury with three different people.
  • I have a list of at least ten things I can do instead of hurting myself.
  • I have a place to go if I need to leave my house so as not to hurt myself.
  • I feel confident that I could get rid of all the things that I might be likely to use to hurt myself.
  • I have told at least two other people that I am going to stop hurting myself.
  • I am willing to feel uncomfortable, scared, and frustrated.
  • I feel confident that I can endure thinking about hurting myself without having to actually do
  • I want to stop hurting myself.

So what do I do instead of self-injury?

  • Try something physical and violent, something not directed at a living thing (e.g., slash an
    empty plastic soda bottle or a piece of heavy cardboard or an old shirt or sock).
  • Make a soft cloth doll to represent the things you are angry at. Cut and tear it instead of
  • Flatten aluminum cans for recycling, seeing how fast you can go.
  • Hit a punching bag.
  • Use a pillow to hit a wall, pillow-fight style.
  • Rip up an old newspaper or phone book.
  • On a sketch or photo of yourself, mark in red ink what you want to do; cut and tear the
  • Make clay models and cut or smash them.
  • Throw ice into the bathtub or against a brick wall hard enough to shatter.
  • Break sticks.
  • Crank up the music and dance.
  • Clean your room (or your whole house).
  • Go for a walk/jog/run.
  • Stomp around in heavy shoes.
  • Play handball or tennis.
  • Do something slow and soothing, like taking a hot bath with bath oil or bubbles, curling up
    under a comforter with hot cocoa and a good book, babying yourself somehow.
  • Light sweet-smelling incense.
  • Listen to soothing music.
  • Smooth nice body lotion into the parts or yourself you want to hurt.
  • Call a friend and just talk about things that you like.
  • Make a tray of special treats and tuck yourself into bed with it and watch TV or read.
  • Visit a friend.
  • Squeeze ice really hard.
  • Put a finger into a frozen food (like ice cream) for a minute.
  • Bite into a hot pepper or chew a piece of ginger root.
  • Rub liniment under your nose.
  • Slap a tabletop hard.
  • Snap your wrist with a rubber band.
  • Take a cold bath.
  • Draw on yourself with a red felt-tip pen.
  • Paint yourself with red food coloring.

If you are bound and determined to hurt yourself, don't share cutting implements with anyone,
try to keep cuts shallow, keep first aid supplies on hand and know what to do in the case of
emergencies, and do only the minimum required to ease your distress.
Note: Depressed teens consistently view their plight as hopeless. They may not be comforted by relationships with family and friends. They will frequently show poor concentration, extreme difficulty in self-starting, striking changes in thinking and behaving, and changes in their eating patterns. They have trouble sleeping through the night and often feel tired, dragged out -- or conversely, have excessive nervous energy. They may feel guilty or worthless. They tend to push away their parents and rely more on relationships with peers.

Teenagers can become unhappy for many reasons. Teenagers who become very stressed will sometimes become depressed. In any case, the parent should consider the following:

1. Use positive discipline. Shame and punishment instead of positive reinforcement may leave feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy in their lives.

2. Avoid over-protecting and over-directing. Protecting children from too many things, not letting them make a mistake, and directing everything they should and should not be doing comes across to children as your lack of faith in their ability to do anything for themselves.

3. Do not expect absolute compliance.

4. Do not use your child to fulfill your own unachieved goals.

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