Why Do Teens Cut Themselves?

scissorsEditor’s note: If you or someone you know is in crisis, please click here for information about seeking help.

Cutting is a popular way for teens to self-injure without the intent of suicide. Using scissors, razor blades, pins, pens, or other sharp objects, some teenagers puncture or cut their skin in various places on the body. If you’re a parent, you are probably wondering, “Why would they do that?” The answers may surprise and scare you.

Simply put, cutting is a maladaptive coping mechanism during times of stress and anxiety that is rarely accompanied by suicidal thoughts. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, self-harming behavior such as cutting has no single cause. It does not discriminate across cultural and socioeconomic levels, but the behavior is predominately carried out by females.

Reasons behind teen cutting are varied. Often it can be categorized by those who already feel numb as a way to experience intense emotion and pain. Numbness may be due to being emotionally overwhelmed for too long, which almost short-circuits the system into a feeling of dullness—neither happy nor sad. Teens who feel numb often identify that the only way to feel alive is to cut.

Another way to categorize cutting is as a release of emotions, similar to a drain when the sink is overflowing. Teens who feel burdened by stress, anxiety, depression, and other emotions may use cutting to vent the unwanted leftovers of those difficult feelings.

Other reasons for cutting include an intense and overriding feeling of aloneness, feeling helpless, and feeling the need to punish or blame for something that happened.

The theory behind why teens use cutting as a coping mechanism reasons that endorphins play a major role. When teens cut, endorphins rapidly invade the bloodstream, resulting in a feeling of pleasure and relief. For some teens, the cutting and the endorphin release make them feel “high.”

Take for example, a 16-year-old girl who is a high academic achiever, member of the elite volleyball team, and a positive role model for her younger sisters. She is an all-around overachiever, earning money babysitting and as a lifeguard, striving to excel in school to make sure she gets into a prominent university. Her volleyball team travels on the weekends, and she is looked at as a leader to the other members. In addition, she volunteers at her church and with her community. She dresses well and in fashion, and is always attempting to make sure her hair is perfect. Although she doesn’t love her body, she knows it could be worse, since she’s an athlete and in somewhat decent shape physically.

Emotionally, however, she’s not in shape, nor positive, nor excelling. She is overburdened by academia, struggling to achieve all A’s in her advanced classes. She has to study from the minute she gets home from school until volleyball practice, and then more upon returning. She is not sure her grades will get her into a “good enough” college. She is worried that her best friend is mad at her, and she’s certain that her father hates her. To make matters worse, her right knee has been bothering her, but she doesn’t tell anyone for fear that her team will be mad at her. She has had to cancel when invited out because she had too much homework and she promised her best friend she’d be available if she needed to talk.

At first glance, this teen seems to have a full and rich life, with opportunity abounding. However, she’s so overwhelmed that at night she uses her desk scissors to slice her wrists repeatedly. To make sure no one suspects anything, she hides the bloody tissues at the bottom of the trash can. She wears stacks of bracelets to cover the damage so no one asks. She doesn’t know what else can release the pressure she feels from school, family, friends, and her team. She heard about cutting during lunch a few years ago, and now uses scissors to pour her emotions out.

This is real life for some teens. As much as parents are disgusted by the idea, and instinctively react with shock about what their child has done to their body, it is an unwanted aftereffect of overworked, overscheduled, overwhelmed children. Never before have we put the same amount of pressure on our children and teens to succeed academically, socially, and beyond.

While it may not make sense that they cut their bodies, it makes sense that they find a way to release the pressure. Without learning new coping skills and understanding their triggers, teens often end up alone in their pressure-cooker lives. Through counseling, teens can learn how to handle distress, how to prioritize in their lives, and how to communicate about their feelings.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Angela Avery, MA, LLPC, NCC, Obsessions and Compulsions / OCD Topic Expert Contributor

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

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  • Tierra

    August 7th, 2014 at 11:58 AM

    I have never really understood the thought process behind this. Please know that I am not trying to be critical I only want to understand the thoughts behind this type of action, because it seems to me that if you are hurting then why do something that will cause even more physical pain?

  • LaDonna

    November 6th, 2016 at 1:01 AM

    I didn’t start cutting until I was 45 years old. I was hurting so much on the inside and I didn’t understand why. When I would cut then I could see the pain. I hid it from everyone until my granddaughter told me about a friend of hers who was doing it. After hearing that kids in elementary school were doing it, I opened up about it to try and help my children and grandchildren understand more about it so they could reach out to others. I didn’t want for them to ignore it if they could help in anyway.

  • Ngawa

    January 15th, 2018 at 5:06 PM

    Well it’s more like a way of distracting emotional pain with physical pain. Personally I used to cut my thighs so that each time I walked I’d focus on the pain between my thighs. Which I must admit was pretty stupid, but atleast it kinda helped me cope.

  • nola

    August 7th, 2014 at 1:33 PM

    This is a cry for help by these teenagers. Sometimes they feel as if they have the world on their shoulders. Don’t you remember feeling that way? I guess it can be like a stress reliever in a way or just a way of showing someone that there is something that is wrong without having to actually say that out loud. That is hard expecially when you are the kind of person that everyone naturally assumes has their stuff together and shouldn’t have any issues but really you do and don’t know how to communicate that. Be on the lookout for this kind of behavior in your teen and their friends becaus eit is something that can quickly get out of control.

  • Angela

    August 8th, 2014 at 4:34 AM

    Nola, you are correct, it can get out of control quickly. Your insight is correct, they often outwardly show that everything’s great, when inside, it’s far from great. Thanks for your comment!

  • Ann

    August 7th, 2014 at 3:33 PM

    Tierra, I am a 57 year old woman who was a cutter as a teen. Back in the early 70’s, I had never heard of cutting. I just knew that when life got too hard, I found a release from cutting. I knew it was “crazy” behavior and I knew I wasn’t trying to kill myself. However when I saw the blood dripping from my wrists, I felt like I could actually “see” the pain. I switch to my thighs, because I didn’t want anyone to know. To my friends, I was sweet, funny and confident, but on the inside I carried a huge dark festering wound. I didn’t understand why I hated myself so much until much later, after years of therapy. All I understood at the time was that without this physical release I would have imploded. I am so glad this self-destructive behavior now gets attention. There are much healthier substitutes to relieve this pressure. But at the time, all I felt was shame for my feelings and self-destructive actions. Just wanted to give you the point of view of a former miserable teen. Ann

  • Angela

    August 8th, 2014 at 4:37 AM

    Your comment is so appreciated, especially since you now have time and perspective to see how it affected you. You have so vividly painted a picture of the feelings associated with the behavior. Thank you.

  • Alan Bond

    August 7th, 2014 at 3:56 PM

    As a Mental health professional, I have witnessed countless individuals who find self mutilation i.e. cutting an ideal outlet for release of tension. It is unfortunate that in our pressurized society, the need to achieve supersedes, quality living. Teens should be allowed to express themselves not because of competition, but because self expression is ideal for healthy living.Releasing tension should not bring forth pain, parents should be more attentive to their child’s non verbal ques and be aware of subtle changes in behavior.

  • Angela

    August 8th, 2014 at 4:39 AM

    Alan, you are right, society now creates a pressure cooker for young people. Hopefully through your work and mine, we can teach better options. Thanks for your comment!

  • Bennett

    August 8th, 2014 at 10:46 AM

    Aside from the outward indication that there is something going on that should be paid attention to, are there any other indicators that we should look at that might give us a clearer idea of who may be the most at risk for this behavior?

  • clara

    August 9th, 2014 at 10:04 AM

    For many teens it could also be about actually Wanting to feel something, they have stuffed down their pain so long that it is like they know that they should somehow be hurting but this feels like a safer sort of hurt than actually dealing with their reality.

  • A

    August 9th, 2014 at 3:17 PM

    Although the large majority of people who self-harm are young teen females, dont exclude other populations. I started cutting in my early teens and have continued to do so off and on for many years and I am in my 30s. Ive met others who self-harm from all backgrounds and genders. A good source of info is A Bright Red Scream by Marilee Strong and Inside a Cutter’s Mind by Jerusha Clark w/Dr Earl Henslin. As to why people cut, its different for everyone. Some feel numb and want to feel again. Some need a release. Some see their lives as out of control and out of their own hands so this one act is something they can control. Some feel emotions so strongly that its like purging themself to let it all out and find peace afterward (emotionally as well as physically because of endorphins). Some feel like they need to punish themself for some reason. The myriad reasons are just as complex as the individuals experiencing it.

  • Jessica

    August 9th, 2014 at 3:40 PM

    For me, I was so depressed, hated life so much, wanted to end my life but knew I couldn’t, the overwhelming sadness that physically hurt. When I would self injure, it made those feelings bearable. I felt like I could breathe again, I could make it through another day. I felt too much and self injury made those feelings go away, at least for a while. 20 years later it is something I still struggle with. Its the “go to” when I start feeling anything bad. Just like an addict wants to use alcohol or drugs to cope, self injury has become an addiction. I no longer give in like before and have learned better ways of coping, but its always there, in the back of my head, whispering to me. I hate it, and yet it is what has kept me alive.

  • Lois

    December 22nd, 2016 at 10:14 PM

    My 14 year old Granddaughter texted me tonight that she has been cutting herself and thinks about committing suicide! I live in Indiana and she lives with her Mom and Step Dad in Ohio. She hates her step dad. Her real Dad has nothing to do with her and her older sister. What should I do?

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    December 23rd, 2016 at 12:07 PM

    Hi Lois,

    Thank you for your comment. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about self-harm at https://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-self-harm.html and additional information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Angela Avery, MA, LLPC, NCC

    August 10th, 2014 at 4:15 PM

    Wow, these are all fantastic comments! They really help to shed light on this topic that is so common, yet rarely discussed. I also love the book titles given by “A” and hope others find those helpful as well.

  • morgan

    August 11th, 2014 at 3:12 PM

    I don’t believe this myself but I know that i have heard others suggest in the past (not on this site!) that the teens who do this are looking for attention any way that they can find it even if it is from something negative like this.
    While I think that this could be possible, I also think that you shouldn’t look at it as seeking attention but as the cry for help that it really is. No one is going to go to these lengths if there is not some serious pain and issues that they are dealing with.

  • eileen

    September 28th, 2014 at 12:25 AM

    and what if you show them that you are there for them no matter what, give them the opportunities for help, boys/girls club, suggestions of walks, drawing, diverting attention, 4 counselors and still no relief? therapy, medication, at their disposal 24/7, a support system in place for the mom AND the child? what then? law enforcement isn’t doing anything, counselors say yes, the child needs hospitalization but because in our state the CHILD has to make the decision since they are 16??? As a single parent have tried everything and then some to make my child feel safe but her teachers, friends and myself are afraid of her and for her. What then?

  • Angela Avery, MA, LLPC, NCC

    September 29th, 2014 at 8:27 AM

    It sounds like you have done so much to try and help your daughter. It sounds like you are exhausted and at the end of your rope regarding this. What are the counselors saying? Is everyone waiting until she does something horrible to herself? This sounds like a really severe case and care needs to be taken regarding her safety. Can anyone reason with her? Is she close to anyone? If there’s someone, something that will motivate her seek help, she could use it. She doesn’t realize that it doesn’t have to be this way, there is hope and help available if she can make a decision not for herself but for those she loves. I’m so sorry this is happening for you.

  • maria

    October 9th, 2014 at 8:42 PM

    I was a cutter back when I was 12, I had soo much pain inside and thought no one understood me, and yes I was numb I didn’t feel anything or care for anyone’s feelings. Now I’m 27 and I still struggle with depression but it no longer controls me. I now have a 12 year old and I’m scared she is going down the same road I was. She blames herself for the fact that I had her when I was 15. She says she ruined my life. I love her with all my heart and am going to do everything to get her out of that darkness that pulls us in.

  • Ellen

    December 21st, 2014 at 9:01 PM

    I came accross this article after searching for answer to why teenagers do it. I accidentally found out my daughter did it on both her arms, and I felt scared she will do it again. I talked to her and encouraged her to be more open to us her parents, as she is an only child. I feel she is lonely being by herself, though she has friends at school, when vacation comes then I know she needs to be with somebody that I always ask if she wants to hang out with them. I also blame myself because I probably do so much for her that her dad often tells me I am not teaching her how to be independent. I just hope that after the talk I had with her that she will not do it again. I appreciate if you can give me any advise.

  • Alexis B.

    February 26th, 2015 at 12:20 PM

    Wow, i’ve read most of these comments and just wow. im 15 years old, i do heavy drugs i ran away from home (now living with my dad)and i am a cutter. my mom used to beat me so bad i thought i was going to die. she’d choke me til i passed out and told me i was a fat worthless whore. to this day i’ll get a phone call, text, email, IM from her with harmful words. idk what this whole bullshit is when ppl say “its a fad” but it upsets me because idk why anyone would do it just because someone else does.

  • Mallika

    March 8th, 2015 at 1:01 AM

    I have fallen for a guy who lives in a different state. He is an year older than me and he is a cutter :'( i love him so much i dont want him to do that but i am so helpless i am so far away i dont even know if he is still cutting:'(
    Please can someone suggest me how should i make him stop it. I dont want him to continue NSSI

  • Debra M

    August 2nd, 2016 at 8:06 AM

    You can’t. He has to want to. You can state your concern and suggest he goes to therapy. And pray for him. It’s physical, emotional and spiritual. Therapy is a positive step in the right direction. Good luck.

  • Nellie

    March 15th, 2015 at 11:06 PM

    I Read all the comments. Out of all the comments Alexis B. Seems to have had reasons for doing what she did. I know a few cutters and let me tell you they have parents that Love them and only try to discipline them to keep them from jail or worse. Correct me if I’m wrong but pretty much every teenager, especially the real spoiled ones go thru that stage where they believe everyone is wrong especially their parents. Those spoiled kids ARE the ones that only do the cutting because a So-called “friend” misled them and only want attention. The real question is what can real friends and parents of cutters do to avoid this at an early early stage?

  • Maria A.

    March 18th, 2015 at 5:58 PM

    Well i have a daughter that verly is or trying to cutt herself verly found out last week she even told me she was.and she told me why the reason she said that was the way to get out her anger n ectress too or feelings out from her inside she is starting up with a pencil she show me as soon she got from school she show me and told me too iam scared because this can get worst cs she said one of her friends do it n i think shes doing it beacuase her friend is doing it too help me please what can i do . Lol maria A

  • lexie h.

    March 29th, 2015 at 5:17 PM

    I’m 14 and I cut myself all the time and I don’t know why I do it, some how I can’t help it ….my parents are scared about it and my mom always slaps me and yells at me ….

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    March 30th, 2015 at 9:19 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Lexie. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Patricia

    December 8th, 2016 at 8:32 PM

    You should contact child protective services in your city or state (or province.) A parent does not have the right to assault you. You have right to live without fear. I know you feel alone. And scared and I hope you have a trusted adult – an aunt, your father, a teacher – someone that you can go to and say the words “I’m in trouble. I need help.” Those words will empower you to get the help you need – with your cutting and with the abuse. I wish you a life full of joy and success – and mostly emotional calm. You deserve it, just like every other person you pass every day on the street. Seek help. Use your words. You CAN DO IT!

  • angie

    May 11th, 2015 at 5:44 PM

    Hi I cut myself everyday and I can not stop doing it every time I get mad or sad I cut myself and I want to stop doing it I just don’t know how can some of y help me?

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    May 12th, 2015 at 9:29 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Angie. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about self-harm at https://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-self-harm.html and additional information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Moony

    September 22nd, 2015 at 11:41 AM

    I’ve always been happy. I have a happy family and I have great friends. I’ve got a roof over my head and food for dinner. Why do I cut? I hate the pain of it but I don’t stop. I don’t know if it’s stress. It isn’t attention – for I hate havig attention in the first place. Could it be that I…like looking at the cuts on my arm, even though I refuse to let others see them – and I’m so ashamed in myself, I can’t even tell a soul. I just don’t know why I’m like this. What’s my reasoning? Do I actually want attention? Am I denying a factor in this situation?

  • Marina van Eck

    October 16th, 2015 at 5:47 AM

    Thanks for the information about children cutting themselves on purpose. I am a school teacher for Grade 9’s at a combination school with boarding school facilities on the premises, in a rural area of Mpumalanga, South Africa. This term I came face to face with this challenge. It still amazes me that children would purposely hurt themselves for relief. After this boy was referred for psychiatric evaluation, he returned to school but his mental state is still much of a challenge. Fortunately there is a good repoire between us and he confessed that during his stay in evaluation , he started smoking to replace the adrennalin rush that cutting once provided. He obviously is till not in a healthy mental state of mind. How can I assist him on his road of recovery?

  • Kiya

    April 7th, 2016 at 5:33 PM

    My name is akiya i am a self harmer people always ask me if im hurt why would i hurt myself more well honestly the answer is because we would rather hurt ourselves then to let somebody else or something else hurt us me personally and i know alot of friends relate to this as well sometimes i let people hurt me and forget that im in control of my body amd cant nobody hurt me more than i can.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    April 7th, 2016 at 7:17 PM

    Thank you for your comment, Kiya. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about self harm at https://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-self-harm.html and additional information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Victoria

    April 22nd, 2016 at 5:49 AM

    Im victoria .Im a self harmer ,I started cutting when i was in grade 9 now im doing matric and im cutting evn worse.I use to hide but now i cant hide anylonger because a lot of people know what i am .I started cutting because i have just went through hell in my life.Even now but cutting makes me feel better,but i have realised that i need help .

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    April 22nd, 2016 at 8:27 AM

    Hi Victoria,

    Thank you for your comment! Many mental health professionals have experience with this issue. If you would like to consult with a professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • J

    May 18th, 2016 at 2:59 PM

    Sad to say, but my 15-year-old daughter has been cutting for close to 3 years now, off and on. Yesterday, I found out she cut her arm again, pretty bad, with one of the cuts needing 2 stitches but too late to get them because she told me too late. I am beside myself, depressed and anxious again…every time this happens it feels more and more devastating. I had a long talk with her yesterday …she tells me a whole bunch of issues/stresses build up and then she just loses it. I have always told her to come to me, day or night, any time, if she needs to talk or to divert against cutting. I reminded her about that yesterday. Had a conversation with the school nurse, who bandaged her up because she accidentally tore the scab off the deepest of the cuts. I hate the way they look, but moreso the fact that she is holding her stresses in. I feel ashamed about her cutting, feeling like I failed as a parent and questioning her mental state. Kind of like wondering what will people think. This wears heavy on me. I feel bad that I was not there to stop her. She said nothing about the cutting until a few days later. Just want the cutting /self harm to stop. I worry about all the scars, the impact they have on her now and in the future. She has cut on her abdomen and legs in the past. The arms are the worst…she was hospitalized two days after my mother died due to a very deep cut on her wrist. I honestly don’t know how we made it through that–we were staying in a crisis unit for two nights…and boy, that was different. I would not leave her there alone, not with the characters that were coming and going. We were cramped in a tiny, stuffy room, with access to the restroom down the hall. The food was horrible. The staff were pretty good though. What an experience. She also spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital that was very nice…we were very lucky to have her in that one-about an hour away, versus a bad one four hours away. I feel like I need to be on guard all the time again, knowing she has self harmed again. Its not a great feeling.
    The main question:How can I get her to stop cutting? I am going to set her back up in counseling. I am exploring EFT (emotional freedom technique)–has anyone tried this for self harmers and if so, what sort of results did you have? Or, what other methods did you use that you found to work?

  • angel

    May 8th, 2017 at 12:07 PM

    hey i have a freind that has this problem and i do not know what to get her to stop and i hate when people use a red pen to think that they are cutting the self and then lie and say that it is cuts when it is not people need to stop doing that

  • savannah

    July 11th, 2020 at 10:01 PM

    I didn’t start cutting myself until I was in 10th grade

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