Understanding Teenage Cutting

Category: Play Therapy

Understanding Teenage Cutting
Q & A with a Professional Therapist
Caitlyn Valle, LMFT

With suicide listed as the second leading cause of death in individuals 10-34 years of age in the United States, it’s not surprising that this epidemic of self-injury is receiving mainstream media attention in popular music, online, and in television and radio programming. In 2016, nearly 45,000 people died from suicide — including several high-profile celebrities — meaning there was roughly one death every 12 minutes. Creating increased awareness and providing more resources can help reduce these numbers and provide help to those who need it most.

So what does suicide have to do with cutting? Teen (or preteen) cutting—making multiple small cuts in the skin—is a personal act of inflicting damage on the self. It is non-fatal but with so much media attention to suicide, parents are justifiably concerned when they see their child inflicting self-injury. Often they ask if it’s a precursor to a suicide attempt.

Here are 5 questions and answers to get a better understanding of teenage cutting:

1. Why do people cut themselves?
For many teens, cutting or engaging in self-injury is an attempt to gain control over emotions that feel overwhelming or impossible to tolerate. Some teens will say that cutting gives them a sense of release or a sense of helping to regulate. For other teens, cutting has become a way to feel better or to “feel something” when they feel they have become numb. People who cut may not know healthier ways to handle overwhelming emotions or may have a mental health condition that prevents them from being unable to use healthier coping on their own during times of stress.

2. If my child is cutting themselves, does this mean he/she is suicidal?
Cutting can often be an indicator of deeper emotional issues that need attention and can be a way that some teens are seeking to belong or feel they are communicating just how upset they are. Some parents may react in natural fear when they realize their child is cutting and assume that a next step might be that the child would try to commit suicide. Self-harm or self-injury does not always lead to suicidal behavior. The best way to address cutting behaviors is to seek help from a professional to rule out if your child is also having any thoughts of suicide and gain support and guidance in creating safety plans to address the child’s needs.

3. Is it true that teenagers will cut if their friends are doing it?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. While it does sometimes happen that teenagers can be peer pressured into cutting because their friend group is doing it, this also could be a sign that others things are out of balance to begin with. Maybe the teenager struggles with self-esteem, is being bullied or engages in the behavior once, then finds it brings relief and is difficult to stop. I’ve yet to meet a teenager that has cut themselves for fun or out of spite.

Most of the time, if teenagers are cutting because their friend group are also doing it, they were having anxiety and/or depression previously or were feeling unusual amounts of pressure and unable to cope in a healthy way. In other words, plenty of teens know someone who has cut but have never done it to themselves. Cutting can also be related to trauma, or be a signal that your teen has gone through an incident that no one knows about. It’s important to remember that like any other behavior, cutting has a purpose, and understanding what that is will be the key to understanding your child’s struggle.

4. What can I do if I notice my preteen or teenager is cutting?
Talk to your child. While this can be an extremely painful and difficult conversation to have, it’s important to let your teenager know that you have noticed they are in pain and that you want to help them find a way to feel relief in a safe and healthy way. Invite your teen to discuss issues that might be bothering them and let them know that sometimes people cut when they are going through something difficult. It will likely be difficult for your teenager to talk about what is bothering them and they may not even know why they are cutting. Even when that is the case, starting the conversation is important, and reassuring them you will do whatever it takes to understand and find ways to help.
Be patient with your teenager. Whatever they are going through, know that it is difficult! Teenagers can be really good at pretending everything is okay but if your teen is cutting, this is a clear indicator that they are going through something big. Being patient with your teenager conveys that you’re supporting them and acknowledge that you may not fully understand their experience but that you would like to.

5. Where can I get more support?
Seek professional support from a qualified mental health professional to help identify causes and develop healthier coping skills. Therapy can help teenagers feel like they have a safe outlet to process feelings and can be a good place to identify underlying mental health issues.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also take the person in crisis to an emergency room or dial 911.

For more information on suicide, please visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/how-we-can-all-prevent-suicide/