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Cutting

Teen Cutting and Self-Harm Behaviors

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Updated May 01, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Cutting is a type of self-harm behavior in which teens deliberately cut or scratch themselves with a knife, razor blade, or other sharp object, but not with any intention of trying to commit suicide.

Other self-harm behaviors can include head-banging, branding or burning their skin, overdosing on medications, and strangulation, etc.

Surprisingly, these behaviors are fairly common, and may affect up to 16 percent of teenagers and young adults.

Cutting

Parents and pediatricians often have a hard time understanding why a teen would start cutting or do other things to harm themselves. Not surprisingly, cutting is a complex behavioral problem and is often associated with a variety of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, etc.

Teens who cut themselves may also be more likely to have friends who cut themselves, low self-esteem, a history of abuse, and/or thoughts of committing suicide.

Why do these children begin cutting in the first place? While it is sometimes seen as an attention seeking behavior, many experts think that cutting is a way for these kids to release tension, relieve feelings of sadness or anger, or simply to try and distract themselves from their problems. Of course, any relief, if it occurs, will only be temporary.

And while some of these teens who are cutting may have a friend who does it too or may have read about it or seen it on TV, most kids who start cutting state that were not influenced by anyone or anything else and got the idea for themselves.

Signs of Cutting

Cutting is most common in teens and young adults, especially teen girls, and often starts at around age 14 or 15.

In addition to being associated with depression and anxiety, teens who cut themselves are also usually described as being impulsive. Some are also described as being overachievers.

Signs that your teen is cutting may include that she:

  • always wears long sleeve shirts or long pants to cover new cutting marks or older scars on her arms, wrists, or thighs
  • routinely has suspicious cuts, scratches, or burns on her belly, legs, wrists, or arms
  • is developing symptoms of depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or changes in her usual mood
  • has trouble controlling her emotions or emotional states, for example, your teen doesn't know how to handle herself when she feels sad or angry

Ask your child if you think she is cutting, or seek professional help first, but most importantly, don't get mad, don't overreact, and don't ignore your child's cutting or other self-harm behaviors.

Treatments for Cutting

It is important to seek treatment for your teen who is cutting, both to help with any underlying psychiatric problems, like depression or anxiety, and because cutting can become a habit they can't stop.

The S.A.F.E. Alternatives (Self Abuse Finally Ends) treatment program describes cutting as an 'ultimately a dangerous and futile coping strategy which interferes with intimacy, productivity and happiness.'

In addition to treating their underlying depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions, teens who are cutting should be evaluated and treated:

  • by a counselor or psychologist who has experience treating teens with this condition
  • with others in a cutting or self-harm support group
  • when necessary, in a treatment center that has experience treating teens who harm themselves

Treatment for cutting will likely focus on helping the teen develop healthier coping mechanisms when faced with feelings of anger, stress, or sadness, etc., help boost their self-esteem, help manage other underlying psychiatric problems, such as depression or anxiety, and to make sure the teen isn't having thoughts of suicide.

An evaluation by a child psychiatrist might also be a good idea for further treatment ideas, which might include antidepressant when necessary.



Sources:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts for Families. Self-Injury In Adolescents.

Nonsuicidal self-harm in youth: a population-based survey. Nixon MK - CMAJ - 29-JAN-2008; 178(3): 306-12

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