As we all know, teens encounter a variety of stressors in their lives,
and develop both healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with their internal
difficulties. Among the most alarming coping mechanism that parents can
discover is that their child is engaging in self-injury. The behaviors
are primarily cutting on oneself, but can also include burning, interfering
with wound healing (picking at wounds), inserting objects into the skin,
punching or hitting oneself and certain forms of hair-pulling. It can
occur in a very rare and minimal way, or it can be so severe as to draw blood.
How prevalent is this problem?
It is alarming to know that cutting is on the rise among teenagers. It
is also alarming to realize that those who begin cutting as teens will
likely continue in their adult years, without proper treatment. The statistics
are difficult to capture, as much of cutting among teens goes unnoticed
and unreported. Some figures include:
- Each year, one in five females and one in seven males engage in self-injury
- Ninety percent of adults who cut began as adolescents
- Almost 50 percent of those who cut have been victims of sexual abuse
- Cutting begins early, often at around 14
- Two million cases are reported annually
- Seventy percent of teens who have engaged in self injury behavior have
made at least one suicide attempt
- Perhaps as many as 1/3 of adolescents have experimented with cutting
Why do teens cut?
Teens generally cut as a reaction to stress and feelings of helplessness.
When internal emotions feel too overwhelming, cutting can provide some
distorted sense of relief; 55 percent of self-injurers said they wanted
to get their mind off their problems, while 45 percent said it helped
them relieve tensions and stressors. Some people cut on themselves because
of a sense of low confidence and self-esteem, and feel the need to punish
themselves. Many teens report a sense of emotional numbness, and cutting
provides a way to feel, and release feelings. For others, there are friends
and websites who encourage the behavior. Cutting also occurs with other
emotional difficulties, including eating disorders, depression, anxiety
and substance abuse. Some experts believe that forms of piercings and
tattooing are self-injury and self-harm. Cutting can be anything from
light scratches in times of great distress, to daily cuts so deep they
draw blood. Cutters generally cut on their wrists, upper arms, inner thighs
What should parents do?
If you suspect or know that your child has a problem, it is important to
communicate with them and to seek professional help. Be aware that the
cutting is a symptom of underlying problems, and just getting them to
stop cutting is not enough. They need help finding the source of the emotional
pain and to gain healthy tools for coping. It is also important for a
professional to help determine if the cutting is a precursor of suicidal
ideation and intent. Try to avoid judging, criticizing or attacking the
behavior, and recognize that it comes from a troubled emotional place.
Try not to be panicked, repulsed or shocked – learning that your
child is engaging in this is a time for acceptance, love and assistance.
Remember, if you have issues you would like to see addressed, please email me at
Moe Gelbart, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Thelma McMillen Center