Teens who cut themselves are often attempting to find a way to deal with intense or strong emotions. If you can imagine teens are going through a lot during this stage of life. Between trying to keep a decent GPA, finding a date for the prom, wearing the trendiest clothes to stay cool, discovering who they are, trying to fit in, and getting along with siblings and parents, teens experience an enormous amount of psychological tension. And some teens might also face emotional or psychological issues at home, such as living with parents who are divorcing, in a home where there is abuse or alcoholism, or perhaps in a relationship where there is domestic violence.
These experiences can create emotions that are difficult to bear. Furthermore, if a teen does not have a parent or other adult who can support them through the challenge, teens may not know what to do with their emotions. They may reach for any way – whether healthy or not – to cope.
Teen cutting can easily become the coping tool of choice especially if friends are also doing the same. A study from the University of Ottawa found that self-injury behavior such as cutting can be contagious among teens. If this coping mechanism is seen as a trend or a method other teens are using then cutting may be the easy choice for teens.
The experience that cutting brings is actually a release of tension. When a teen is in their room alone and the door is closed, cutting the skin and seeing red blood flow can actually provide a sense of relief. Although it sounds odd, teen cutting can easily become a primary coping mechanism that continues over time.
Parents shouldn’t jump to conclusions: cutting is not a means of suicide. It doesn’t come with the intention to take one’s life. As mentioned above, teen cutting is, in most cases, merely a way to deal with difficult emotions. Mental Health Aid describes self-harming behavior like opening the lid of a boiling pot to provide a release of tension. It is as though by cutting and feeling the pain, the physical pain helps to release the emotional pain.
There are other ways besides teen cutting that a teen might choose to harm themselves. These can include:
- bruising the skin
- pulling hair
- excessive exercise
- pinching oneself
- increased drinking
- sabotaging good relationships
- staying with others who do not treat you well
- pulling one’s hair
- puncturing the skin until it bleeds
- scraping the skin with objects
- picking wounds
- deep scratching
- striking the body creating soft tissue damage
Reasons for Teen Cutting
Using self-harm as a coping mechanism for anxiety and other strong emotions is most common among teens. However, teens might harm themselves for other reasons as well, such as:
- as a punishment for a perceived failure
- to calm or soothe themselves
- to feel more alive if they feel disconnected or numb
- to release pent up anger
- to feel physical pain
- to create a lasting sign of distress
At first, parents might be shocked when they learn that their adolescent is hurting themselves. Yet, it’s important to learn the reason behind why your teen is engaging in self-injury. If your teen is cutting to cope with strong emotions, remember that it might have started out rather innocently. This unhealthy pattern might start off as an experiment among friends or sometimes as a response to a dare. Sadly, some teens might check it out as a way to fit in with their peer group.
How to Support Your Teen
If you find out that your teen is cutting, it’s important not to jump to punishing them. In fact, as the pattern continues, most teenagers will do their best to hide this behavior. They are often ashamed about the injury they are inflicting upon themselves and, as a result, will wear long sleeve shirts to cover their wounds. Sadly, this shame and the need to hide what they’re doing only adds to the stress they experience.
Instead of trying to steer your teen away from cutting through consequences, instead seek to understand why your teen is cutting (or harming themselves in another way). This is an opportunity to provide your teenager with support, love, and understanding during this difficult life stage. If you have the type of relationship where you can and your teen can talk to one another, this alone can be a healthy tool for releasing emotions. However, if you feel that you and your teen need support in facing this issue, seek the support of a mental health provider.