Self-Injury: Teens & Cutting by Cathy Clevenger, LCSW
Self-injury among teens is common and the rate may be increasing. As a parent finding out that your child is engaging in self-injury can be scary and overwhelming. Parents are often unaware of how often this occurs in teen culture today and are confused about why their child would engage in this type of behavior. Cutting by teens is not the same as attempted suicide. In fact, professionals now refer to this behavior as Non-Suicidal Self-injury (NSSI). In addition to cutting; pinching, biting, burning skin, punching oneself are other forms of self-injury are present in the teen culture. Cutting is the most prevalent form of self-injury.
What do we mean by cutting? Cutting is when a person uses a sharp object, such as a razor, knife, or scissors to make cuts on their arms, legs, stomach. In the beginning, the “cuts” may be very superficial, however with continued use the cutting can become deeper and more dangerous for some teens. Those who engage in self-injury typically cut in places where others cannot see the cutting. They will wear long sleeves to cover cuts on their arms. Some teens do allow others to see their cuts, although many people describe this as “attention seeking” behavior, this should be recognized as a need for help. Teens who cut/self-injure are more likely to have had suicidal thoughts or attempts in the past or struggle with suicidal thoughts or attempts in the future. Professional help from a therapist who works with teens and has experience in treating teens with self-injury is the first step in helping your teen.
The major purpose of Non-Suicidal Self-injury appears to affect regulation and management of distressing thoughts. Teens often state that cutting helped them get their mind off their problems or the behavior helped them release tension or stress and relax. When the teen feels overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions, NSSI can be an effective, although harmful, strategy to stop or reduce negative thoughts and emotions. Once started self-injury seems to acquire addictive characteristics and can be quite difficult for a person to discontinue.
Treating NSSI involves determining the needs the behavior fulfills and helping the teen devise other, healthier ways to meet those needs. Improving the family’s understanding of NSSI can be useful in decreasing misunderstandings and conflicts. Families can also help with safety plans and practicing problem-solving.
If your teen is engaging in self-injury, please know that we are here to help you and your family through this painful process.
Cathy Clevenger, LCSW