The Real Issue Behind Cutting and Other Self-Harm Behaviors

Teen boy worried sitting on the floor“Cutting helps me to release anxiety. I feel better after I do it.”

“Cutting provides me with control over my emotions and allows me to express my emotional pain.”

These are the words of teens who have engaged in self-injurious cutting behaviors. Generally speaking, cutting serves as an emotional release for teens who struggle to engage in effective coping behaviors. Without the “release” cutting provides, a teen may not be able to alleviate distress. Over time, the emotional release provided by cutting, coupled with an inability to use other coping tools, can result in significant self-harm.

Although the emotional difficulties experienced by teens who engage in cutting behaviors are often quite challenging, for parents of teens with this issue, the pain of watching their child injure herself or himself can be overwhelming. It is often hard for parents to imagine that a child is in so much emotional distress that self-destructive behavior seems, to the child, to be warranted. Many parents believe that they provide their children with the love and support they need to lead emotionally healthy lives. The discovery that a child is engaging in cutting behaviors can be devastating. The distress experienced by parents is also often compounded by a lack of knowledge regarding how to help.

If parents suspect that their teen is engaging in self-injurious or cutting behaviors, they must act quickly to prevent further harm. When confronted about the behavior, teens may dismiss it and even work to convince their parents that they need this behavior in order to cope. Teens may compellingly make the argument that they are only hurting themselves, not others, so what is the harm? Although these arguments may at first seem convincing for parents, the reality is that when a teen engages in self-injurious behavior he or she is experiencing significant distress that must be addressed through more positive outlets.

When responding to the needs of your child, it is important to remember that self-injurious behavior is typically an emotional response to distress and generally not an indication that your child is considering or attempting to commit suicide. Because the act does represent a significant amount of emotional distress, parents must be willing to seek help for their child and address the underlying emotional problems that are causing the child to engage in this type of behavior. Self-injurious behavior can, of course, result in accidents which cause suicide. Professional counseling support may be needed to help the child identify what is causing the behavior and find new, healthier ways of coping.

The most difficult part for parents will be coming to terms with the reality that a child has experienced so much emotional pain that he or she could not find another way to cope with it. Parents may experience a wide range of emotions, including guilt, shame, and anger. For parents struggling with these emotions, professional support may be needed. Family therapy could also be useful.

There are no circumstances under which self-injurious behavior should be considered acceptable. Cutting behavior represents significant emotional distress for your child, and your response to this issue will be critical for ensuring your child’s emotional well-being over the long term. Helping your child learn new coping tools, and helping yourself come to terms with your own emotions about the situation, will be imperative to healing.

© Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Michael Clatch, PsyD, Grief, Loss, and Bereavement Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gabby

    October 9th, 2014 at 10:48 AM

    We found out that our son was doing this after we wouldn’t let him hide behind the long sleeves and over sized clothing anymore. We suspected but couldn’t be sure until we forced that confrontational moment and it took us aback to understand that he was doing this because if the pain that he was feeling inside. It is shocking to learn that your child has been hurting like this but didn’t know how to tell us so he did the only think that he knew how to do.We are lucky that we catually forced the issue a little because he is getting help and I think that we have all learned a whole lot from the experience. I still worry that he will take to this kind of behavior again one day but for now we are trying to take things one small step at a time.

  • Miller

    October 9th, 2014 at 11:31 AM

    Do you think that there is some part of those who do this who are looking for attention, no matter how they can get it, good or bad?

  • Dani

    October 9th, 2014 at 11:51 PM

    Cutters will hide thier scars, attention seekers will draw attention to it. Cutters are ashamed and their pain is hidden which is why they ‘need’ to cut, attention seekers can’t wait to tell someone they cut! If someone is dramatically telling you they cut they are an attention seeker not a cutter. There is an obvious difference. The one needs attention and guidance and generally a whack upside the head the other needs understanding support and help.

  • Serena

    June 15th, 2016 at 8:06 PM

    That’s not true. Just because someone wants to tell another person they cut doesn’t mean at all they want attention.

  • Alison

    October 10th, 2014 at 4:22 AM

    Absolutely Miller. The problem is that people tend to view attention seeking as a negative when in actual fact it’s vital and necessary.

  • Jaye

    October 10th, 2014 at 8:00 AM

    I can understand why as an outsider you might think this but the vast majority of those who self harm do it in secret because of the stigma surrounding it. It isn’t fundamentally about needing attention – it’s more about addressing uncontrollable emotions the only way which helps.

  • Gina

    October 9th, 2014 at 6:38 PM

    Cutting behavior is not about looking for attention (good or bad). It’s an attempt to cope with intense negative feelings. Causing physical pain can distract from emotional pain, or move the focus from emotional pain to physical pain. It can cause an endorphin rush and therefore a sense of relief from emotional pain. Many who cut or self harm feel a deep sense of shame or remorse after engaging in the behavior. Most will benefit from having a safe non-judgmental and non-punitive relationship in which they can express any and all feelings and have those feelings accepted and validated. They also benefit from learning how to express emotions, tolerate distress, and soothe themselves when they are upset in healthy ways.

  • amy

    October 10th, 2014 at 7:56 AM

    It is easy to think that it could be a form of attention, a cry for help perhaps. From my personal experience of being a self harmer there is so much emotional tension and distress built up that it feel this is the only way they see to get the mental pain out. On a physiological level the act of cutting releases endorphins which releases a build up of intense emotions. My mum took it hard to see I was self harming. She tried everything to try and take the pain away and understand. Due to my experiences I trained as a counsellor and after my final dx of bpd set up a website to support others. It is hard for anyone to understand why a loved ones deliberately hurt themselves. There is no diffinitive answer. It’s a case of being there for them and listening in a non judgemental way

  • J

    October 16th, 2014 at 1:27 AM

    I totally agree. Been there and that was my cry for help.

  • J

    October 16th, 2014 at 1:33 AM

    It can serve a purpose for both. I was a cutter years ago and am now a healthy therapist working with these individuals. Some hide it, but others start as a way to cry for help, particularly in situations where they are emotionally neglected by caregivers. In my experience personally and professionally, after chronic emotional neglect and being told that emotions are not okay. This is often exacerbated by exposure to early trauma that is not allowed to be discussed or worked through. The purpose for self-harm takes on different forms for different people. It is important not to ignore ANY signs. Healthy individuals do not resort to this behavior….broken, sad, lonely and misunderstood people do.

  • Rose

    November 29th, 2014 at 6:15 PM

    I am in my 40’s and have been struggling with this since age 15. I started doing it to quiet the internal rage inside that I could not release. Uncomfortable feelings were not talked about at home. I had so many questions and wanted love so badly that I thought I was inheritently defective and deserved punishment and death. I hid the scars well. I still do. I abuse myself in many other ways, including choking, hitting myself, pinching myself, smoking, making myself bleed, over medicating, etc. on the outside I’m a highly functioning woman with a family. Inside I fight the urge to self destruct every. Single. Day.

  • Erin

    March 18th, 2020 at 8:56 AM

    If someone is cutting for attention, I think it’s valid to point out that they probably need it. “Attention seeking” is a projected label by individuals who experience shame around getting their own needs met, so they blame other hurting individuals who appear to be less skill full at getting their attention needs met (ex: cutters). I think it’s important not to separate “attention seekers” and not. They are hurting people manifesting their pain differently. All self harmers need attention, whether they are conscious of their need for it is irrelevant.

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