If you see signs of self-injury in your teen, you might feel sickened, overwhelmed, and confused. One common way that teens self-injure is by cutting. This can include nicking, scratching, or burning any part of the body. If you suspect that your teen is hurting him- or herself on purpose, it’s important to stay calm and get them the help that they need. Here is some information on teen cutting that parents should know, including symptoms, risks, and teen cutting treatment.
Signs of Teen Cutting
The most obvious sign of teen cutting is the appearance of fresh cuts on the arms, legs, or other parts of the body. Depending on how long it’s been going on, you might also see scars of various ages. Since adolescents who are cutting generally try to hide it, however, this sign might not be easily seen.
Some additional signs that your teen might be cutting (and hiding it) include wearing long sleeves and long pants, even on hot days, and the appearance of what looks like rug burn from rubbing hard on the skin to create an injury without obvious blood. If you ask your child where they got an injury, they might tell you something that doesn’t quite make sense; for example, they might blame a series of deep cuts on a cat, when cats do not scratch in that pattern.
In addition to physical signs, your teen might have some behavioral or emotional signs. He or she might have a hard time with strong emotions and have frequent outbursts or signs of depression. They might also have some signs of suicidal thoughts.
Why Teens Cut
Many times, teenagers cut or otherwise injure themselves because they are having trouble processing and expressing their emotions. They have not learned ways to cope with stress in a healthy way. Sometimes they see it as a way of relieving internal emotional pressure. They might do it as a misplaced way of getting back at those who have hurt them. Teen cutting indicates that a teen is not coping well with whatever pressures and situations they are going through.
Cutting can also be a way for someone to gain a feeling of control when other things in life are uncontrolled. This could be something major, like a divorce in the family or past or present abuse, or it can be something that is part of normal teen life, like balancing the demands of sports and schoolwork. If your teenager is feeling like life is uncontrollable or there has been a recent trauma or change in circumstances, be alert for the signs of teen cutting.
Teen Cutting and Mental Health Conditions
Sometimes, teen cutting can be a part of other mental health conditions. It could show a lack of impulse control, which can be normal or could be a sign of a mental health problem. Sometimes cutting co-exists with bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, or eating disorders. When you seek help for your child for the cutting behavior, the doctor and mental health professional will also evaluate him or her for these other issues.
Risks of Teen Cutting
The immediate risk of cutting is that a teen can go too far and seriously injure him- or herself. Most teens who cut are not suicidal, but a misplaced cut can cause a lot of blood loss and even organ damage. Cuts can become infected, too, since those who cut tend to use whatever they have available, and these instruments might not be very clean.
Other risks of cutting are emotional more than physical. Someone who is cutting is not using appropriate coping skills, and these skills are needed for a lifetime. There is some danger to not developing them during childhood and adolescence. Also, teens who cut might be ostracized by peers once their secret gets out. They also might have undiagnosed depression or other mental health disorders that can get worse without treatment.
What You Can Do
If you suspect that your teen is injuring him- or herself, try to stay calm. Approaching your teen with anger or an emotional outburst could just cause them to retreat to their bedroom and start cutting even more. Instead, try to have a calm, rational talk about the behavior and about the feelings that lead to the behavior. Let your teen know that you know the cuts are not from a pet (or whatever else they might have blamed it on). Your teen might be very relieved that you know, because it means that he or she doesn’t need to hide it anymore. They also might continue to deny that it’s a problem.
Make an appointment with your teen’s primary care doctor for an evaluation. He or she can refer you out to a mental health specialist if warranted. If your teen has a cut that looks infected or is bleeding a lot, or if you think that suicidal thoughts are involved, go to the emergency room. In a severe emergency, call 911.
Treatment for Teen Cutting
If your teen is diagnosed with a mental health condition that can respond to medication, that might be part of the treatment for self-injury. There is no medication that is specifically for cutting, however, so psychotherapy might be the main treatment offered. This can include cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, psychodynamic therapy, or mindfulness-based therapies. The goal will be for your teen to find other ways to control and express emotions without harming him- or herself.
Continuing treatment once your child has stopped cutting and stopped feeling the urges can include individual or group therapy. A support group for adolescents who self-injure can remind your teen that others are dealing with or have gotten through similar situations.
As the parent of a teen who is injuring him- or herself, you might not know what to do and you might be afraid for your child’s future. Contact the appropriate mental health professionals and learn how you can best support your child has he or she learns better coping skills. Also, consider getting help for yourself if you feel like you are having a hard time dealing with this difficult situation. This will set a good example for your teen and it will also help you feel better and parent more effectively.