Why Teens Hurt Themselves Through Cutting and Self-Injury

When Angel was struggling in junior high, she was slowly deteriorating and declining into a depression. At the age of 14, her stepfather passed away and that was the last straw that broke her sense of self. She was already have a difficult time socially and wondering how she was going to fit in. Losing her stepfather was a hard blow to feeling loved and accepted.


At the age of 15, she uncovered the experience of using scissors to cut her skin. Although it hurt, she figured that if she could get through the pain, she could get through the other circumstances in her life. Although it drew blood, in a way, she felt in charge for once.


Later when she entered high school, she was surprised to discover that there were other girls who were also into cutting. Along with her need to fit in, her peers seemed to confirm the fact that cutting her wrists was a good way to cope with life’s challenges.


And it’s not surprising. A third to one half of children ages 12 to 18 engage in self injury at least once, according to a study done by the journal Psychiatry. Frequently, self harm is easily misunderstood by parents, caregivers, and teachers. It is often shocking for parents who learn their teen is harming their body in some way. However, when understood, self harm can be seen for what it is, frequently a means for coping with strong and overwhelming emotions.


In most cases (around 60%), self harm is not an attempt at suicide. Instead, it is a non-fatal act carried out with a purpose. Teens might harm themselves as a way to feel physical pain, to create a lasting sign of distress, as a punishment for perceived failure, to release feelings, or to cope with strong emotions that might result from trauma or challenging past experiences. Using self harm as a coping mechanism for anxiety and other strong emotions is common among teens.


“Most want to kill their emotional angst,” said Janis Whitlock, Ph.D., director of Cornell University’s Research Program on Self Injurious Behavior. “It’s not that they actually want to die.”


Although, there are many ways in which an adolescent might harm his or her body, cutting is the most common. This unhealthy pattern might start off as an experiment among friends or sometimes as a response to a dare. Sadly, some teens might even cut as a way to fit in with their peer group. Cutting is a form of self harm that includes puncturing the skin until it bleeds, scraping the skin with objects, picking wounds, biting or burning the skin, deep scratching, or even striking the body creating soft tissue damage.


In Angel’s case, her cutting became more and more severe, particularly as her relationship with her mother worsened and became more intense. Finally, after an argument with her mother, Angel went into her room and cut gridlines along the length of her wrists. The next day, her mother admitted Angel into a residential treatment program for self injury.  Eventually, her mother transitioned Angel to a treatment center that works with teen self injury through the use of the arts. There, Angel learned to express her difficult feelings through painting, dancing, and photography. She needed a new way to cope with the intense feelings she was experiencing. She needed a way to express those feelings that was not harmful to herself.


If you’re a teen or the parent of a teen who is cutting or displaying self injury, the best way to provide care is to seek the professional service of a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. With proper treatment, such as medication and therapy, self harm can be replaced with healthier coping mechanisms that are life affirming and safe.