How to Help a Teen Who is Cutting

I can still remember the way the blood looked on the white paper that sat on my desk. At the age of 13 I had a sudden urge to find a razor blade and cut into my wrists. The words “cutting” and “self-harm” were foreign to me. I knew of no other person in my…

I can still remember the way the blood looked on the white paper that sat on my desk. At the age of 13 I had a sudden urge to find a razor blade and cut into my wrists. The words “cutting” and “self-harm” were foreign to me. I knew of no other person in my world who had attempted such behavior. It was an urge…an impulse…and it felt good. I had no voice in my family. As a middle child I had learned not to rock the boat, and showing anger was unacceptable behavior. The feeling of relief, the high I felt from seeing the drops of blood, were followed by feelings of shame, and then feelings of fear.

I covered the wounds with bandages and wore long sleeves. The last thing I wanted to do was explain my behavior to my parents. They would not have understood. I didn’t really understand either. Ten years later, during an intense therapy session with a professional, I finally came to understand my self-harming behavior was driven by unresolved grief, the grief I was carrying from the death of a very close family member. Ten years later.

While serving at a Mental Health Crisis Unit I was able to interview more than 600 patients. I always ask about past or present suicidal ideation and self-harm. Every client fell into two motivational categories when admitting to self-harm behavior, meeting the need for attention or for release. With my patients, the root of the release-motivation seemed to always be control. They were out of control and feelings had become impossible to control. People in their lives demanded too much control. They needed to remind themselves that they could act on their own and regain a sense of control even though it was irrational. Emotional pain had to be expressed through physical pain.

If you have reason to believe your teen is cutting or engaging in other self-harming behavior here are some things you can do:

1. Approach them in love.

They will likely feel ashamed of their actions, and will be relieved when you don’t demand an explanation. Remember the wounds you see are the tip of an iceberg; and there is a world of pain beneath the surface.

2. Show empathy, not judgment.

Without a long lecture about your own experiences or recommendations of ways to “stop” the behavior, try saying something like this, “I’m so sorry you are having to deal with so much, can I find you someone to talk to?” Validate their feelings and need to cut, explain that you do not understand what they are going through, but that you will be there for them and help them find a good counselor no matter how long it takes. Realize it may take time to find the right counselor, so don’t give up until you do.

3. Confidentiality is very important.

Teens are often reluctant to talk with a parent, fearing that the parent will not keep the secret. The teen may feel they can only rely on their peers. Not a good choice. This is not the time to talk about their behavior with anyone but a trained professional. Open communication and maintaining trust is crucial to the healing process.

4. Self-harm behaviors are linked to a heightened risk of suicide.

If your teen refuses to talk to a professional counselor, a school counselor may be a good great first contact. They have likely seen the teen and have built a rapport that can lead to a referral for more intensive counseling. If your teen refuses to talk to a trained professional, you may have to request a Baker Act. Although extremely difficult, it could save a life. You can initiate a Baker Act by contacting the local police and explain that your teen is harming him/herself.

5. Don’t ignore your own stress level.

You need to stay healthy and may need counseling and support for yourself. The most effective leading is always by example. Find a counselor that can help you navigate your own feelings of guilt and shame. This is not the time to be passive or to blame. Gain wisdom and learn about resources in your area. Parents play a key role in getting their teen to the help they need. Don’t delay. Research indicates that early intervention with a trained professional decreases the behavior and lowers the risk of a suicide attempt.

6. Find good resources and share them with your teen.

For additional information and resources, please see:

The One Love All Equal website has several hotlines and web pages. Study the research and educate yourself.

Self Harm Hotline: 1-800-DONT CUT (1-800-366-8288)

Caring for Young People Who Self-Harm: A Review of Perspectives from Families and Young People (2018)

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