How to help teens who cut (or self-harm in other ways)

We all get cuts and bruises, right? When you see one on your teenager, you ask, “What happened?” and they’ll probably reply with something like, “My friend’s cat scratched me,” or “I hit my hand on a desk at school.” But what do you do when those cuts and scrapes never seem to heal, or there are clusters of them in one area of their skin? Cutting is a type of self-harm that involves purposefully using a sharp object to cut the skin. But how do you help teens who cut?

There are several reasons why teens may cut or self-harm, such as dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic experience, being overwhelmed with stress, or even peer pressure. Some can even use it as a form of punishment if they feel like they did something wrong or disappointed others. Self-harm may be different from suicidality, but it’s still incredibly dangerous. It displays mental health issues that need to be addressed and treated. While some teens may only self-harm once or twice, it can become a harmful habit.

What are the forms and symptoms of teens who self-harm? 

Cutting is done with the intention to feel relief after a short, intense pain. There are other forms of self-harm on the skin as well, including scratching, burning, self-hitting and picking wounds. Pulling out hair is also a self-harm behavior. 

There are a few symptoms and signs to look out for if you sense that your teen may be self-harming, including:

  • Always wearing long sleeves or pants — A common sign that a teen may be self-harming is wearing long sleeves and jeans. This is done to cover up the marks and cuts, as the behaviors are often done on the wrists or thighs. If they are wearing long sleeves or jeans in the summer, they may be trying to hide their self-inflicted injuries. Bracelets can also be used to cover up the cuts.
  • Recently developing negative behavior or attitude — If your teen is cutting, or self-harming in other ways, then they’re likely going through emotions and changes that can’t be seen on their skin. However, they may be noticeable in their behavior when you talk with them. You can also note any recent shifts in their attitude. Adolescents who self-harm often avoid social situations, have an increase in negative emotions and convey a feeling of hopelessness. 

How can I help as a parent of a teen who cuts?

Figuring out how to help your self-harming teen can be challenging for parents. However, there are several steps you can take to help them, including: 

  • Communicate that you’re there for them — Like most cases dealing with difficult topics, communication with your teenager is key if they are self-harming. While many adolescents are reluctant to open up to anyone about their struggles, especially their parents, it’s important for them to know that you’re there for them. Not to judge or lecture them, but to listen and understand. 
  • Validate their emotions — Validating their emotions can go a long way. They need to know that it’s OK to have these feelings, but they don’t need to keep them to themselves or resort to harmful habits to deal with them. If they are telling you about a difficult problem or experience that they’re going through, an effective response is, “That sounds very difficult.” It’s important that you don’t downplay their problems and how they are feeling about them. You want them to trust that they can come to you for any reason and you’ll be there with open ears and an open mind. That means having patience if they aren’t ready to talk to you yet.
  • Express your love and support — Love and support should be the foundation of your communication with your adolescent in any facet of their life, especially when it comes to dangerous behavior like teens cutting or self-harm. It’s even OK to express to them how you feel about the discussion, with statements like, “This is hard for me because I care so much about you, but I want to make sure you’re healthy and safe.”
  • Make your home safer — As a parent, you want your home to be a safe space for your teen. If your teen is self-harming, that may take some additional effort. For instance, you may need to consider securing items that can be used for self-harm, such as razors and lighters.
  • Seek professional assistance — Working with a medical health professional can help your teen address their self-harming behavior. These pros can help teens understand and work on the underlying issues behind their behavior while still treating them as the unique person that they are rather than a diagnosis. 

Teens who cut and their families can find help at Lightfully 

At Lightfully Behavioral Health, we know it can be hard to wrap your mind around your adolescent harming themselves on purpose, but it’s important to stop such behavior as soon as possible. Our licensed, clinical experts can help teens tackle the mental health problems behind self-harming behaviors. They can work with you and your teen to develop a treatment plan that’s specifically designed for their needs. Additionally, our experts will treat your teen as the complex and layered human they are and not just another diagnosis. 

Change is possible. When your teen needs help with their self-harm behaviors, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward their fullest, brightest version of themselves.

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