Teens at Muir Wood enjoy game night

Cutting and Self-Harming Behavior in Teens

As a parent, the idea of your teen cutting him or herself is likely incredibly disturbing for you. Moreover, you might be completely baffled as to why any teen would deliberately hurt themselves.  According to the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost 20% of teenagers in the US have admitted to resorting to some form of teen cutting. Even more unsettling is that less than 18% of teenagers that cut do not seek treatment.  Given the gravity of these statistics, it’s crucial to learn more about this mental health condition in order to assess optimum teen self-harm treatment.

What is Teen Cutting?

Cutting is the practice of self-harm in which teenagers purposefully scratch or cut themselves using sharp objects such as razor blades, or knives.  Mental health professionals have linked cutting in teens who feel overwhelmed, stressed, conflicted, or teens who are experiencing teen depression. In most instances, teens who cut themselves report a sense of relief, and self-harming acts frequently serve as a way to relieve themselves of tremendous mental anxiety and pressure.  While teenage cutting is dangerous and should require treatment, the act of self-harm might not necessarily stem from a desire to commit suicide.

The Difference Between Teen Cutting and Suicidal Behavior

If you suspect or witness your teen cutting him or herself, it’s a logical assumption that your teen might be attempting suicide.  In reality, cutting in teenagers is a misdirected response in highly troubled teens who are seeking some kind of catharsis from intense mental strain or anguish – not an act of suicide. However, there is a valid connection between self-harm and suicidal behavior.  According to the National Institutes of Health, almost 70% of teens who harm themselves have either attempted or considered attempting suicide at some point.  So, even though teen cutting might not be a direct attempt at suicide, it could potentially lead to a life-threatening situation in your teen. With this in mind, it is vital to get a full understanding of teen mental health, the underlying causes of self-cutting and get immediate self-harm treatment for teens in order to sidestep escalating behaviors that may lead to suicide.

Other Forms of Self-Harm

In addition to cutting, other types of self-harm in teenagers can be burning, pulling out hair from the body or scalp, scab-picking, skin-piercing with sharp objects, and/or purposefully banging their bodies or heads against hard objects or walls.  Other subtler forms of self-harm can include taking drugs or drinking alcohol to excess, getting into fights with the teen expecting injury, having unsafe sex, or excessive exercise to the point of injury or collapse.

Why Teens Cut Themselves

In many cases, cutting or self-mutilation is a desperate attempt for teens to shock themselves out of deeply consuming states of intense emotion.  The act of cutting can distract, alleviate, or might even depressurize intense feelings many teens have difficulty processing in healthy ways.  Furthermore, cutting may be the last resort for teens who need to feel more in control if their lives feel confusing or chaotic.  Alternatively, teens might also resort to cutting as a way to feel something if they are experiencing emotional numbness or apathy. In this scenario, causing themselves pain is a way to grasp onto some semblance of emotion or feeling.

The Effects of Teen Cutting

The aforementioned motivations for teen cutting might sound incomprehensible to parents who are struggling to understand why their child is hurting themself. However, it might be helpful to learn that self-harming behavior can trigger an endorphin effect. To explain, the act of inciting pain or injury causes endorphins to be secreted into the bloodstream.  This chemical reaction causes a pleasurable or numbing effect, which is fleeting – but still an immediate and welcomed relief for some teenage cutters.

Warning Signs of Teen Cutting

According to research gathered by psychiatrists at the American Academy of Pediatrics, teenagers who cut commonly begin the pattern around the age of 12 – 14. Moreover, teenage girls are 30% more likely to engage in self-harm activities than teenage boys. The typical profile for cutting in adolescents isn’t very typical at all.  To explain, it can be challenging to pinpoint a certain personality type that is prone to this behavior.  For instance, mental health professionals who specialize in helping teens who cut often report that these teens are can be overachievers, and it’s not unusual for them to perform well with schoolwork.  While it’s certainly true that some teen cutters can appear impulsive, withdrawn, or overemotional, they can also appear very successful, composed, and highly organized. Because all teens are different, identifying signs of teen cutting can pose challenges.  Nonetheless, here are a few warning signs to be wary of that might indicate if a teen is harming him or herself:
    • Makes attempts to cover up potential wounds, such as wearing long pants or long-sleeved shirts (even in warm weather).
    • Obvious signs of cuts, scrapes, or burns that continue to appear on the body (particularly wrists, arms, torso, or thighs).
    • Evasive or elusive responses when asked about fresh wounds.
    • Wounds that do not heal, might be a sign of re-cutting or picking at scabs.
    • Signs of blood on linens, towels, tissues in wastebaskets or clothing.
    • Possession of sharp objects – particularly what is known as a “cutting kit” in which cutting tools are kept hidden.
    • Spending an inordinate amount of time alone (particularly in the bathroom), or becoming increasingly more withdrawn socially.
    • Avoiding environments in which wounds might be revealed (such as changing rooms, gyms, swimming pools, etc).
    • Struggles with relationships.
    • Substance abuse or drinking alcohol.
    • Erratic behavior, inability to control feelings, or frequently becoming overemotional.
    • Expressing feelings of helplessness, being overwhelmed or feeling out of control.

What To Do When You See Signs of Teen Cutting

If you suspect your child of self-cutting or self-harm, it’s important to understand they are doing this as a means of coping.  As such, it’s best to approach them with compassion and empathy.  For instance, instead of accusing them of inflicting self-harm, try gently asking them about it, and encourage them to open up and share their feelings that are causing this behavior.  Bear in mind that communication is crucial when helping teens who cut.  Once an honest dialogue is created, then you and your teen are in a far better position to find solutions.  Teen self-harm treatment can be obtained through various types of therapy, which we’ll discuss in more detail in a moment.

What to Do in an Emergency

Clearly, if teen cutting turns into an emergency and becomes life-threatening, then dial 911 to get immediate medical help for your child.  Apply pressure to the wound(s) until first responders arrive, and try to keep your teen as calm as possible. If you suspect your teen is suicidal, then seek out immediate attention from a mental healthcare professional, or call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741.

Treatment for Teen Cutting and Self-Harming Behavior

As mentioned, teen self-harm treatment can come in a variety of different ways. The most common treatments include psychotherapy and psychiatry. These are treatments that allow teens to talk about their mental and emotional difficulties and allow mental health professionals to assess the underlying causes of self-harm in teens.  Group therapy is also effective as teens can discuss their feelings in a safe, supportive environment with other adolescents experiencing similar challenges.  In some instances, counseling coupled with full-time observation, such as provided by Muir Wood Teen inpatient treatment center, can help ensure long-term healing and recovery from teen cutting.

How Muir Wood Can Help

Our licensed, professional team of mental health care providers are both highly experienced and motivated to render the right treatment teens need to overcome self-harming behaviors.  We assess each teen individually to determine the core source of the behavior.  In addition to critical assessments and psychotherapy treatments, we also provide life-affirming therapies such as support groups and creative therapies like art, music, and adventure therapies. Muir Wood Teen is also fully licensed with full-time psychiatry and nursing staff to help your teen receive the life-saving treatment he or she needs to live a full, flourishing life well into adulthood.

Teen Cutting & Self-Harm Treatment at Muir Wood

At Muir Wood Teen, we understand that teen cutting can be alarming. That’s why we provide a nurturing and supportive environment for your teen. We also extend psychologically sound solutions that encourage both you and your teen to move through this challenging time in life with clarity, assurance, and hope. Teenager cutting can be treated, but it takes qualified professionals who are skilled at providing results-driven teen self-harm treatment that enables teens and their parents to overcome complex and confusing mental health struggles.  Contact us today and let us show you how we are committed to your child’s mental health and long-term wellness.