While the general public becomes increasingly aware of the prevalence of cutting among teenagers, it remains difficult to assess and treat. According to a recent study, due to a lack of standardized assessment tools and the absence of a clear-cut definition of what self-harm actually is, it is difficult to measure the prevalence of self-harming behaviors within a given population. Self-injuring behaviors, which include cutting, represent a significant problem and require further research in order to formulate evidence-based treatments. Yet, despite the relative lack of precise information about self-harm and cutting, there are steps that parents can take both to recognize the risks and warning signs of cutting and other self-injuring behaviors and to help their children overcome those struggles.
“Cutters” use sharp objects to inflict cuts or scratches on themselves, deep enough to break the skin. Cutting usually begins in the early teen years. Although the behavior is more common in girls, anyone—of any gender or age group—can struggle with cutting.
People who cut look to the habit as a coping mechanism. A teenager might turn to cutting when she feels that she has no other way to deal with intense feelings; emotional pain, stress, pressure and trauma are some examples of potential triggers. Most teenagers who cut have not yet developed healthy ways to express their emotions; thus, cutting becomes a dysfunctional form of relief. Cutting can quickly become a compulsion, as the brain connects self-injury to the false sense of comfort that cutting produces. Although many people who start cutting view the behavior as temporary, they begin to feel controlled by their habit, unable to stop.
A common misconception is that cutting is a form of suicidal behavior. In fact, many cut to feel better and not to inflict a fatal injury. However, this does not mean that cutting is not dangerous. For one thing, a person who cuts can misjudge the depth and/or location of his cut and find himself seriously hurt. Someone who cuts may also neglect to sterilize—or improperly sterilize—her cutting instrument, which can lead to an infection. Even more, cutting can be indicative of emotional problems that, if left untreated, can lead to suicidal behavior.
The Internet and social media have proven to be both a blessing and a curse for dealing with teen cutting. On the one hand, many websites provide a wealth helpful information and advice about self-harm, its prevention and treatment. There are many easily accessible resources to which parents can turn when they fear their children may be cutting. The fact that so many of us are well acquainted with cutting helps to de-stigmatizs it. We all know that cutting is a widespread problem—we have even read stories of celebrities overcoming battles with self-injury. This mass of information can help people who cut to feel less ashamed of their behavior and be able to ask for help.
On the other hand, social media has also unintentionally promulgated self-harm. Like the pro-anorexia and bulimia websites that surfaced years ago, we have begun to see a rise in pro-cutting websites, in which young people post pictures of their cuts or other self injuries and encourage one another to continue the behavior. In fact, Instagram, the popular photo-sharing website, recently banned all accounts or images that promote self-harm. Though it is impossible to regulate the Internet (many other pro-cutting online venues have arisen since the Instagram ban), it is possible for parents to stay aware of their children’s activity—both online and off. As a parent, you can help your child learn healthy ways to deal with his feelings.
If you fear that your teenager is cutting or self-injuring in any way, there are many things you can do. First of all, it is important to consult a mental health professional. Cutting may be a sign of a mental health problem, such as depression, bi polar disorder, anxiety or an eating disorder. Secondly, take the time to educate yourself about cutting and self-injury. There are numerous resources—both online and off—for you to explore. Insight will always be glad to point you in the right direction. Finally, while it is helpful for you to express your concerns to your teen if you suspect that she may be cutting, it is equally important to come from a place of compassion and understanding. Remember, cutting is a maladaptive coping mechanism. Your role is to help and support your child find healthier forms of self-expression and not to punish your teen for something he feels he cannot change. Supporting your child in overcoming this compulsive behavior is not about assigning blame—cutting is not your fault, nor is it your teenager’s—it is about finding a solution.
We encourage you to contact Insight for more information about the risks, warning signs and treatment options for cutting and self-injury.
 Muehlenkamp et al. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2012, 6:10