Cutting in Teens: Parent Guide to Self-Harm

As a parent, the thought your teen is engaging in self-harm can be overwhelming and alarming.  One of the most common ways teen self-harm is by cutting. While it can be hard to understand cutting in teens, it is often a coping mechanism and way to release emotional pain.

What is Cutting?

cutting in teens

A form of self-harm, cutting, is when a person intentionally cuts or scratches their skin with a sharp object. People often use razor blades, knives, and broken glass. Cutting is a common and unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain.

The act of cutting releases endorphins which provide temporary relief or numbness. However, cutting can cause infections, leave lasting scars, and in severe cases, can be fatal. It is crucial for parents to recognize the signs of cutting in teens and seek help.

Types of Cutting

Teens who cut themselves do so in various ways, including:

  • Cutting or piercing their skin with sharp objects
  • Carving words or symbols into the skin
  • Scratching with fingernails or other objects
  • Piercing the skin

Statistics and Facts on Cutting in Teens

  • Self-harm, including cutting, is more common in adolescents and young adults. According to the American Psychological Association, about 15% of teenagers have engaged in some form of self-harm.
  • Approximately 50% of those who cut have a history of sexual abuse.
  • Cutting is more common among females than males. One study found that among adolescents who engaged in self-harm, about 60% were female.
  • Cutting can indicate underlying mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. In fact, one study found that up to 90% of individuals who engage in self-harm also have some form of mental illness.
  • Cutting can be a coping mechanism for emotional pain. Research has shown that cutting can temporarily relieve emotional distress by releasing endorphins, which can be a natural painkiller.
  • Cutting can lead to physical harm, including scarring, infection, and even death. In severe cases, individuals may require medical attention or hospitalization.
  • Cutting is often a secretive behavior, and individuals who cut may go to great lengths to hide their scars or injuries.
  • Cutting is not the same as suicidal behavior, although it can be a risk factor for suicide.
  • Teens who cut don’t fit a specific stereotype. Many teen girls who cut are pretty, popular, and good students.
  • Cutting in teens is often learned from their friends.

Why Do Teens Engage in Cutting?

Teens engage in cutting for various reasons, including:

  • Coping with emotional pain or difficult feelings
  • Releasing endorphins, which can provide temporary relief
  • Expressing feelings that are difficult to put into words
  • Feeling a sense of control over their lives or bodies
  • Self-punish or relieve guilt
  • Seeking attention or help
  • Fitting in with peers that engage in self-harm
  • Coping with trauma or abuse
  • Alleviating mental health disorder symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder

It’s important to note that there are many different reasons a teen may engage in cutting, and it may not be easy for them to express or understand their motivations. Cutting in teens can also become addictive, making it harder to stop.

Although teens don’t cut with the intent to die, it does occasionally occur. It’s important for parents and loved ones to approach the issue with empathy and seek professional.

The Relationship Between Mental Issues and Cutting in Teens

While cutting in teens isn’t healthy, it’s not an automatic sign they have a mental health disorder. However, cutting and other forms of self-harm are associated with several mental disorders, including:

  • Depression: Teens with depression may use cutting to cope with feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or worthlessness.
  • Anxiety: Teens with anxiety may use cutting to manage overwhelming feelings of anxiety or distract from anxious thoughts.
  • Borderline personality disorder: Cutting is a common symptom of borderline personality disorder (BPD), a mental health disorder characterized by intense mood swings, unstable relationships, and impulsive behavior.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Teens who have experienced trauma or abuse may use cutting as a way to cope with symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks or intrusive thoughts.
  • Substance abuse: Teens who struggle with substance abuse may use cutting to cope with withdrawal symptoms or self-medicate.

It’s important to know cutting can also be a symptom of other mental health disorders. It’s important to seek professional help for a correct diagnosis and treatment.

What are the Risk Factors of Teen Cutting?

Many risk factors play a part in cutting in teens. These risk factors include:

  • Having friends or family who cut
  • Dealing with high levels of stress
  • Previously self-harming
  • Being bullied
  • Perfectionism
  • Having poor coping skills
  • Past or current neglect or abuse
  • Experiencing losses
  • Mental health disorders

Signs of Teen Cutting Parents Should Watch For

When teens cut or use other forms of self-harm, they go to great lengths to hide their actions from others. Teens don’t want anyone to see their wounds or scars because people will ask questions or try to help.

Parents typically think they will know if their teen is cutting, but it is often happening in their own homes, and they are oblivious.

Warning signs of cutting in teens include:

  • Finding sharp objects in your teen’s belongings
  • Fresh or scabbed cuts, scratches, or carvings on the skin, commonly on the arms, thighs, and torso
  • A doctor, teacher, or coach tells you they notice wounds or scars
  • A sibling or close friend witnesses the cutting
  • Wearing long sleeves and pants in warm weather
  • Isolates in their room behind locked doors, especially after a fight, breakup, or major disappointment
  • Finding blood on sharp objects in the bathroom or your teen’s room
  • Disguising cuts in wrists with bracelets and wristbands
  • Using an unusual amount of bandaids
  • Persistent anger and irritability, anxiety, or depression

Is Cutting in Teens a Suicide Attempt?

Teens who cut are not always trying to commit suicide. They have feelings and big emotions without the tools to cope with them. While some people use cutting methods to commit suicide, it is typically a sign of an underlying mental health disorder.

In fact, treatment for cutting typically evaluates teens for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and trauma. Parents must get their teens help if they suspect cutting.

Teens can accidentally cut too deep, and cutting can even escalate to actual suicide attempts. In fact, it is sometimes unclear if the cutting was a suicide attempt or not.

What Can a Parent Do if They Find Out Their Teen is Cutting?

If you find out your teen is cutting, it can be both frightening and confusing. While taking this behavior seriously is essential, it’s just as important not to overreact.

Cutting in teens is not a “phase.” It leaves lasting physical and emotional scars. Additionally, it can be potentially life-threatening. The sooner you get into treatment for cutting, the better your chances for a healthy future. The following are things you can do to best support your teen who is cutting.

Talk to Your Teen

Being open and honest when talking to your teen about cutting is crucial. This will make them feel more comfortable being open with you. Do not scold or nag your teen; this typically backfires and can trigger them to cut more. Your teen will likely downplay their behavior and tell you it’s nothing to worry about. Remember, your teen is likely pushing you away out of embarrassment and fear of punishment.

Schedule a Doctor’s Appointment

When it comes to cutting or any form of self-harm, it’s crucial to have your teen evaluated by a medical doctor and a mental health professional. A mental health evaluation can determine if your teen has any underlying mental health disorders fueling the cutting. Even if the evaluation rules out any mental disorders, it can identify the root cause of the behavior.

Get Your Teen Treatment

Once your teen is evaluated, you will receive treatment recommendations. These recommendations depend partly on any underlying mental disorders such as anxiety or oppositional defiant disorder.

Types of treatment for cutting in teens include:


Several types of psychotherapies or individual therapies can help reduce cutting in teens, including:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – CBT is a relatively short-term form of treatment. CBT focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns, beliefs, behaviors, and self-talk that contribute to cutting. CBT is also beneficial for various mental health disorders.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) – A variation of CBT, DBT was originally designed for borderline personality disorder, which includes symptoms of self-harm behaviors. DBT helps teens learn healthy coping skills and how to handle intense emotions.
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy – This therapy helps explore the issues at the subconscious or unconscious level. These issues are often the result of childhood trauma and other negative experiences.
  • Mindfulness-based therapy – Mindfulness helps people live in the present moment and increases self-awareness.
  • Family therapy – Family therapy focuses on unhealthy family dynamics, resolving conflicts, and building healthy communication skills.
Medication-assisted Treatment

Medication isn’t prescribed to treat cutting in teens per se, but it can help with underlying mental health disorders. Once these symptoms are addressed, the cutting starts to subside.


If your teen’s cutting is severe, they may need inpatient treatment. Teens can focus on their mental health and build healthy coping skills by stepping away from their daily life and having around-the-clock treatment.

Ways to Support and Encourage Your Teen

As a parent, you may go through a range of emotions – from fear to confusion to anger – when you learn your teen is cutting. But it’s important to keep your emotions in check. Staying calm is the best thing you can do; overreacting will only push them away.

Ways a parent can support their teen include:

  • Educate yourself about cutting in teens
  • Learn about any mental health disorders they are diagnosed with
  • Make yourself available to listen
  • Listen without judgment
  • Be compassionate
  • Actively participate in their treatment
  • Show them unconditional love
  • Avoid punishments for cutting
  • Be patient
  • Work on yourself
  • Be respectful of their privacy
  • Create a low-stress and peaceful home environment
  • Don’t blame yourself

FAQ About Cutting in Teens

What is cutting in teens?

Cutting is a form of self-harm in which a person deliberately injures themselves, usually by making cuts or scratches on their body with a sharp object.

Why do teens cut?

Teens may engage in cutting to cope with emotional pain, release tension or stress, or feel a sense of control over their lives. It can also be a symptom of underlying mental health disorders.

Is cutting in teens common?

Cutting in teens is more common than many people realize. Studies have shown that as many as 15-20% of teens engage in self-harm, including cutting.

What are the warning signs of cutting in teens?

Some common warning signs of cutting in teens may include unexplained cuts or scratches on their bodies, wearing long sleeves or pants even in warm weather, becoming withdrawn or isolated, and expressing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.

Can cutting be deadly?

While cutting itself is usually not deadly, it can lead to serious complications such as infection or excessive bleeding. In some cases, the cutting may also be a sign of suicidal ideation or a risk factor for suicide.

What should I do if I suspect my teen is cutting?

If you suspect your teen is cutting, taking action is important. Talk to your teen in a compassionate and non-judgmental way, seek professional help from a mental health provider, and create a safe and supportive environment for your teen.

How is cutting treated?

Cutting is typically treated with therapy or counseling, which may involve cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, or other approaches. In some cases, medication may also be prescribed to help manage underlying mental health conditions.

Can cutting be prevented?

While it may not be possible to prevent cutting completely, there are steps parents and caregivers can take to reduce the risk. These include promoting healthy coping skills, creating a supportive home environment, and seeking professional help if concerns arise.

Shortridge Academy Can Help

cutting in teens

You are not alone if your teen is cutting or struggling with mental health disorders. At The Ridge, our team can help your teen build healthy coping skills and create a happy and healthy family unit. Contact us today to find out more.

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