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Teenage Cutting and other Self Harm

Self-harm or self-injury are behaviors that cause injury but are not suicidal in nature.

What does self harm mean to a parent?

It means that your teen is not intentionally trying to kill themselves but is engaging in a behavior that is resulting in injury. Self-harm/injury can come in many forms. It can be cutting, burning, head banging, or other risky behavior that results in recurrent injury (e.g. broken bones).

Why is my teen harming/injuring him or herself?

I think the most common question I have from parents is ‘why’ – “Why is my teen hurting/injuring him or herself?” This question is actually a complicated question which could have many different answers depending on your teen.

What I can give you are some common reasons that research has been able to uncover.

Teens can engage in self-harm:

  • as a way to provide escape from feeling ‘nothing’ or ‘numbness’. It can help them to feel ‘something’. I have heard teens say that it helps them feel alive.
  • as a way to get some control over their lives. Teens may feel a lack of control over their thoughts and their feelings and by engaging in cutting, they engage in a behavior that seemingly gives them a sense of control.
  • as a way of dealing with their emotional pain that they are not able to express. By cutting or burning, they are able to take emotional pain and turn it into something physical or tangible.
  • as a way to avoid or escape their recurring painful thoughts and feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, frustration, anger, shame, abandonment, etc.
  • as a way to escape from the physical tension they feel in their body. Cutting or burning can take away the escalating anxiety and provide an outlet for this tension.
  • as a way of showing other people they are in pain and are not able to deal with it in other more healthy ways.

One thing I am very sure of:

Teens do not cut to make you as a parent suffer.

They may try to use self-harm/injury as leverage (e.g. If you do not do… then I will cut) but they do not continue to engage in these behaviors to make their families miserable. Quite often these behaviors are done in privacy, in places on the body that can be hidden and parents have no idea it is going on.

Teens who self-harm are usually dealing with overwhelming stress. They are struggling with problems at school, with relationships, with past trauma, and/or with past abuse. They may not have healthy ways to cope with their stress or hurt.

What are the signs and symptoms that my teen may be harming or injuring him or herself?

  • Blood on clothing
  • Wearing long sleeved shirts even when it is hot outside
  • Wearing pants even when it is hot outside
  • Finding razors (e.g. box cutters, single razors, utility knives), pins, needles, or tacks in your teens belongings
  • Wanting to be alone in bedroom for extended periods of time when depressed or upset
  • Changes in behavior (e.g. a person who commonly laughs to not smiling anymore, crying a lot, not talking as much)
  • Change in mood (e.g. has gone from happy to looking sad or being angry)
  • Peers cutting themselves
  • Cut or burn marks on your teen
  • Self harm scars
  • Discussing self-harm via Face book, texting
  • Visiting sites like Tumbler
  • Spending excessive amounts of time with social media

You will most often notice a few of these behaviors...not just one. As a parent keep your eyes open and notice patterns with your teen.

What can I do as a parent to support my teen?

As a parent you can be a big supporter and helper for your preteen/teen. Below is a list of tips you can use:

  • Find a good time to talk with your teen. You might want to take her/him out for a drive, to acknowledge that she/he looks stressed and that something seems to be bothering her/him.
  • Reaffirm that you are there to love and support her, and that she can tell you anything and you will, most of all, listen.
  • If she does not respond to your openings, be silent for a few minutes. People need time to process difficult information and formulate a response.
  • If you still have not been able to help your teen open up to you, express your observations (e.g. I have noticed that your clothes have had blood on them, that you are spending more time in your room, and you are wearing a lot of long sleeved shirts). Tell your teen you can get through this stress together and then be silent. Give your teen a chance to talk.
  • If your teen begins to talk, do not interrupt. Ask questions: Tell me what has you stressed? Has it been happening for a long time? How have you been feeling? Have I done anything to add to your stress? Do not give advice at this point. Just think about collecting information and telling your teen you are there to help.
  • If you are unsure how to help your teen at this point, let you teen know that you are unsure how to help but you can figure it out together. You may feel that it is okay at this point to ask your teen if you could help them by seeking the guidance of a professional who could help you both.

    If your teen is unsure about seeking a professional, ask him/her to think about it, suggest a time frame when you will be asking for an answer, and let him/her know that you may seek guidance to help you as a supporter and parent. By asking your teen to think about this decision and by giving a time frame, you are letting him/her know he/she has time to process your request and that you will be bringing it up again. By stating that you may seek support from a professional lets him/her know that you need help, too, and are willing to seek it out.
  • Seek a professional (e.g. counsellor, guidance counsellor, mental health clinician, or therapist) to give you guidance if you are unsure how to handle the information you have been given or the lack of information you have been given (your teen has not opened up to you).
  • You might want to consider talking with a professional for your own support. A professional may help you process the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing. Quite often parents wonder what they have done to cause this problem and experience numerous feelings like anger, fear, panic, worry, and frustration.
  • Try to keep an open line of communication on this topic, let her/him know she/he can express her/his feelings, and praise your teen when she/he is successful.

What not to do as a parent who has discovered that your teen is self-harming/injuring?

As a parent there are behaviors you do not want to engage in when dealing with a teen that is self-harming /injuring:

  • You do not want to invalidate your teen (e.g. I can’t believe this is what you are doing. What the hell is wrong with you? or What are you thinking?) Teens who self-harm are already feeling invalidated by themselves. They do not need other people who love them to continue this pattern.
  • Do not panic, yell, scream, curse, and generally act as if you have lost control and the world is ending. Teens that self-harm already feel bad about themselves and do not need those who love them to tell them that their opinions are correct. (e.g. I feel so shameful and, look, my parent feels that way about me, too)
  • Avoid going to other friends or family members before talking with your teen. There is a risk if you do. Your teen may find out that you are asking around and not talking to him/her first. You want to address the behavior with your teen first. If your teen will not tell you what is going on, inform him/her that you will be checking into it because you love him/her very much. Taking this action lets your teen know that you have come to him/her first and you have given him/her the chance to talk. It also informs him/her that you love him/her so much that if he/she is unable to talk about it, then you will need to ask others what they have been observing.
  • Do not consequence your teen for self-harm/injury. Teens self-harm/injure as a result of something that is troubling them and it is very addictive. Giving them a consequence or punishment may only make the behavior increase.
  • Do not tell your teen to stop it right away. As it has been stated, self-harm/injury is addictive and can be difficult to stop. Telling your teen to simply stop is like telling someone to stop breathing.
  • Do not tell your teen you will not tell anyone else about this problem. This is a promise you cannot necessarily keep. You will need to seek advice and support for your teen and for yourself.

If you have read this article after you have approached your teen and you think it has not gone well, do not quit.

Go back to your teen, apologize if you need to, express that it is painful to hear that someone you love is hurting him or herself, and that you would like to start over with him or her.

Self-harm/injury is a very risky behavior. Suicide is not the intention but it does happen as a result of injury.

As a parent you need to seek outside support in order to work through this problem.


Myer, T. (2011). Inside Intention. Nursing (July), 26-31,
Goodman Lesniak, R. (2010). The lived experience of adolescent females who self-injure by cutting. Advanced Emergency Nursing Journal, 32(2),137-147.