Why are so many teens cutting themselves?

Cutting is a form of self-harm that is increasing in the adolescent population. Both males and females use cutting as a way to reduce unwanted emotions like anxiety, anger, sadness, and tension. Adolescents cut when they want to escape a difficult situation and as a way of expressing distress. Some use cutting as a way to punish themselves due to guilt. As a parent, finding out your child has used cutting can be shocking and confusing. It is important to remember that cutting is not the same as a suicide attempt. However, people with a long history of self-harm are at greater risk of suicide attempts, so self-harm behaviors must be taken seriously. Cutting and other self-harm behaviors should be viewed as a sign that a person is in emotional pain and in need of a more effective way to deal with their emotions.

Teens choose self-harm to deal with common problems such as arguements with parents, school difficulties, issues with friends, significant others,  siblings, physical health issues, depression, bullying, low-self esteem, sexual problems, and alcohol and drug abuse. Some parents find that their teen has talked with others about self-harm on social media sites or read people’s blogs related to the topic. There is an abundance of information about self-harm available to teens and the information on the internet is mixed with messages that both encourage self-harm and discourage self-harm and try to offer support.

Some warning signs that your teen is using self-harm include:

Unexplained frequent injury including cuts or burns
Wearing long pants and sleeves in warm weather
Low self-esteem
Difficulty handing feelings
Relationship problems
Poor functioning at school or home

As a Parent – What the heck do I do?

If you are a parent with a teen who has used self-harm, don’t panic! Strong emotions can get in the way of being effective at communicating. Find a time to talk to your teen about what you have observed rather than assuming you know the whole story. For example “ I noticed you have been wearing long sleeves and its summer. You also have been staying in your room and not engaging with us? Have you been cutting?

Teens that use cutting as a coping strategy may not express themselves easily and may be looking for any excuse not to open up. Do your best to listen to what they have to say  telling them what to do, how to feel, or offering your judgment about their behaviors. Let them know you care about them and that you are going to  to find help.


In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) the clinician works with the client to identify the triggers of the self-harm behaviors so that the client can better understand them and then change them. Once these behaviors are better understood, the clinician and client work to develop alternative behaviors. The clinician works with the family to change their interactions with their teen as necessary using interpersonal effectiveness skills and specifically Validation.

DBT teaches both behavior change and acceptance. Teens that cut typically have difficulty tolerating distressing thoughts and emotions, so learning to tolerate, rather than change an emotion is a powerful skill. DBT teaches mindfulness which helps a person live in the present and appropriately perceive thoughts and actions of those around them to reduce anxiety and depression.