Any parent or guardian hates the idea of their child being injured, and the idea of their child intentionally injuring themself is even worse. Teen who self-injure may cut, burn, bruise, or otherwise harm themselves, although cutting is the most common.

Parents or guardians who have discovered that their teens are cutting feel terrified, confused, and lost. Why would any young person do that? Why would my teen do it? What has gone wrong? How do I make them stop?

Any parent or guardian who discovers their teen is self-mutilating should ask their teen directly if they are suicidal (and those who are need to be taken to an emergency room immediately.) However, most teens who cut do not want to kill themselves. Cutting is more often a coping mechanism gone awry.

Teens who cut are having negative feelings that they can’t deal with in any other way. They may have depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, substance abuse problems, or simply be under a lot of stress and unsure how to deal with it. Some teens who cut want distraction, others feel numb and want the sensation, and others are repressing their emotions to the point where they express them by cutting.

Some teens cut impulsively, and only once. Sometimes it can even be a fad; when I was in junior high, it was cool to burn”smiley faces” into skin using the hot metal of a lighter. But many teens who cut have been hiding it for a long time.

Obviously, cutting is not a good way to deal with stress or strong emotions. It can result in infection, scarring, or an accidental serious or fatal injury. It is also a very isolating way to cope. You can talk, exercise, or get away with friends and family; when you cut, you cut alone. Those who cut usually end up having to hide the injuries, which isolates them even further. There’s nothing wrong with preferring some solitary time when things are tough. There is something wrong when you have to hide the way you cope and process your feelings from the people you love.

Let’s go through what to do once you find out your teen is cutting:

  • Try to remain as matter-of-fact and calm as you can. The first step is to ask if they want to kill themself. Right before that, or right after, make sure they do not have an injury that needs emergency medical attention.
  • If neither of these scenarios applies, explain that you want them to see their primary care provider or a mental health professional to assess what is going on.
  • Don’t express anger or blame. It’s fine to let them know this upsets you, the most important message to get across is that you love them, you are concerned, and you want to help. Let them know you understand that something is wrong for them to be doing this, and you want them to be able to speak to someone about better ways to cope with things.
  • If your teen is cutting, please remember: you are not alone, and neither are they. Self-mutilation has increased in the last few decades. Estimates of how many young people engage in this range from 10-33%.
  • Get them into care with a mental health professional who works with adolescents who self-injure. There is evidence-based therapy and treatment for this problem.
  • Cutting can be addictive, as can anything that offers a quick release from painful feelings or situations. Support your teen throughout their journey, and understand that they may relapse into the behavior. 

Do you have a story of a loved one injuring themself? How did they get over the problem, or is it still occurring? What do you wish you would have known beforehand about how to deal with it?