Your Move, Parent: What to Do When Your Teen Is Cutting

sad-teen-looking-over-water-2You look over at your lovely daughter and think to yourself how time flies. Gazing at her with love, you notice red marks and lines on her youthful arms. Immediate panic sets in; you reach over with shock and say, “What is this?!” Your parental urgency sounds like terror, and your daughter pulls away quickly and rebuffs your concern. She retreats to her room, and you are left wondering where you went wrong and concerned that she’s in danger.

As much as it’s an unwanted membership, you’ve just joined with other parents who have children who cut. You may not even know that’s what you’ve exposed, but most likely it is. If your child has been acting more irritable, overwhelmed, and on edge, be aware of the signs of potential self-harm. Generally, the signs distinct to a person who cuts include:

  • Wearing long sleeves in warm weather. People who cut themselves usually hide the evidence.
  • Wearing a multitude of bracelets to cover their wrists. Again to hide the evidence, not necessarily to be in fashion.
  • A teen who explains away marks and cuts in unlikely ways, such as “cat scratches” when you don’t own a cat.

The biggest question becomes, then, what do we do as parents? Here are some suggestions to help you parent through this challenging time:

  1. Don’t freak out. This is the hardest part for parents, but a necessary one with teens. If you freak out, they freak out. They are just as afraid of their behavior as you are, and if they see you unable to control yourself and handle it, how is there hope for them to cope? Instead, breathe, think it through, and speak calmly.
  2. Check your anxiety. How do you handle your anxiety? Do they see you cope in healthy ways or do you create maladaptive behaviors as well? Are you stressed all the time, yell at everyone, and otherwise handle life poorly? Remember, they are watching you.
  3. Ask them if they want to talk about it, and create opportunities for them to talk. Forcing teens to talk is a recipe for disaster. Instead, be available and let them know repeatedly that you are there to listen if they want to talk. They will appreciate that they can choose to talk or not, and that you are accessible. Create time and opportunities to engage with them.
  4. Don’t embarrass them by telling all your friends. As much as being secretive is damaging, so is telling everyone you know because YOU can’t handle it. This is the time to put your teen’s feelings first and care for them without alerting the media.
  5. Know your limits. If this is too much to handle, seek help for your teen. Self-harm is relatively newly acknowledged and understood as a coping mechanism. A mental health provider can provide guidance and teach appropriate techniques to help your teen handle life.
  6. Don’t tell them to stop cutting. Telling your teen to “knock it off” or “don’t do it again” is simply asking for rebellion. Although that’s how we feel and what we want to say, it’s best to understand the behavior fully before seeking demands.
  7. Create a plan. This is a great time to create a plan for healthy coping mechanisms. Brainstorm with your teen alternative solutions during stressful times. Maybe they can go for a walk, call a friend, bake a cake, draw, listen to music, watch a movie, or journal. This can be a fun activity to do together—use your creativity!
  8. Spend one-on-one time with your teen. Kids spell love: T-I-M-E. Make time.

Discovering that your teen cuts may lead to panic and unease. How you handle yourself during this scary time can create a path to peace or leave a destructive wake. Checking yourself and your own anxiety can be a powerful tool to teaching your teen how to do it, too.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Angela Avery, MA, LPC, NCC, therapist in Clarkston, Michigan

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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  • Elliott

    Elliott

    September 8th, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    I know that we all want our kids to talk to us, but soemtimes we may not feel like we are the safest person for them to talk to from their point of view. I think thast for many it is all about recognizing and understanding that we are very aware of what is going on, that it could hurt them, and that we wnat to help in any way possible. You can suggest that they talk to you or someone else who may could be a little more objective that you possibly can be. Whatever it takes, don’t let them keep it buried within- let them know that there is help and that you wnat to help because this could ultimately be something that can cause them a great deal of harm.

  • Nic

    Nic

    September 8th, 2014 at 3:03 PM

    Speaking from experiance as a teen who was a cutter, my parents handled it very badly and they were actually part of the problem. So making time to hang out with them or forcing me to talk about it just made it worse. In the end after a massive fight in which they basically said get over yourself and stop being so stupid they brushed it under the carpet so to speak and for them it was over and done with. Not for me, i just became more creative and got through it with the help of friends and an aunt whom i spoke to when i felt i could vocalise my feelings better. It took alot of time and def wasnt easy but i learnt to cope and deal in different ways, healthier ways. It takes time and patience and i understand its hard for parents to get this but you cant push it….sometimes it makes it worse.

  • Dee

    Dee

    August 1st, 2018 at 8:48 AM

    thank you for sharing your story. I recently found myself approached by a camp counselor who thought that my daughter might be cutting herself. I almost broke down and cried because the first thing that went through my mind is that I was the cause of her feelings. I am so sorry that your parents were so selfish and did not help you. I hope that I will do better. I’m still coming to terms with this new situation and am hoping that I can help my daughter get through this.

  • millie

    millie

    September 8th, 2014 at 4:04 PM

    How do you not overreact as a parent? You see your kids doing something that could so obviously hurt them and you want to jump in and protect them and stop the behavior.

    I am not sure what any other option would actually be

  • Ann

    Ann

    September 8th, 2014 at 5:13 PM

    As a former cutter, the worst thing a parent can do is to make it about themselves (why are you doing this to me?) or reject any “feelings” your teen does express. (“You don’t really feel that way.” This was big with my mother). If your teen is able to acknowledge the relief that comes from cutting, do not shame them. He/she is opening up a little when they tell you that. Listen and validate. Give them choices. ( “Maybe we can figure out other ways to get the same results”). If you become overwhelmed, get support from a professional who has information and can help you cope and make helpful decisions. If your teen says they are not trying to kill themselves, I would tend to believe them. Cutting, unfortunately does work. It is not healthy, but it does provide a release. Fortunately as your teen matures and hopefully gets help, chances are he/she will learn more healthy ways to cope with intense emotions. Ann

  • raoul

    raoul

    September 9th, 2014 at 10:23 AM

    This is going to be soemthing that is difficult for any parent out there. Why are they doing this to cry out for help when they could simply ask? I think that this is a question that many of us would struggle with and there could be no easy answer for that exact question. I think that kids who are doing this are looking for a way to tell others that hey, I need some help here, but they are afraid to ask or maybe they don’t even know it and this is how they are exhibiting that need. Either way iot can be scary but it is good iif you can start by catching this behavior early and then working with the child to get him or her the guidance that they need to get through this. It can be manageable, it can be worked through, but they can’t do it alone.

  • Harry

    Harry

    September 10th, 2014 at 3:56 AM

    I guess I am out of the loop but I had honestly never heard of teens doing this until we learned that our own daughter was one of the ones who did. We did freak out a little before taking a huge step back and deciding that the better tactic was to try to get to the root of the issue instead of yelling and crying. I think that once her mom and I were able to do that she was a little more comfortable talking with us and we are working through it right now.

  • alex25

    alex25

    August 5th, 2018 at 5:28 AM

    Thanks for sharing. Its reassuring to know others have gone through this – very very new to us – as of two hours ago! What did you find worked to help your daughter and how is she now? Thanks :)

  • Hunter

    Hunter

    September 13th, 2014 at 10:49 AM

    Don’t you think that there will be those times when teens want to talk but if it isn’t what the parents want to talk about then there is no conversation at all?
    That makes me sad to think about how many miised opportunities there could be just because we are “too busy” or really just don’t want to listen to what they have to say.

  • Mark Loewen, LPC

    Mark Loewen, LPC

    September 15th, 2014 at 10:42 AM

    Great article about such a scary subject. I can’t imagine being in the shoes of a parent who experiences this. As a counselor, I have however joined kids in the journey towards healing, and I can say that there definitely is hope. There is an abundance of hope. Kids a looking for a better way. If often means a change in family dynamics, and change is hard. But kids get better, and kids grow from the experience – If handled right. I would definitely recommend any parent to seek the help of a professional when they notice that this is going on.

  • Stacy

    Stacy

    January 17th, 2015 at 7:55 PM

    It broke my heart when I discovered that my teen was actively engaging in self-harm behaviors about 3 years ago. She attempted suicide (pills) and was hospitalized. The best thing that ever happened to us was finding a great DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) team who worked with us for many months.

    DBT is a great approach in a crisis, but it doesn’t have that much to offer in terms of solving the problems that lead teens to self-harm in the first place.

    We recently found an affordable residential treatment facility that is designed to treat the underlying problems in the 12-16 weeks after the teens are discharged from the hospital. Research shows this period is very high risk for relapse, and moreso if problems include substance. I’m finally feeling hopeful. Help us out there, don’t give up.

  • Nikki

    Nikki

    January 18th, 2015 at 12:33 AM

    i found myself in this situation a year ago and it tears u apart, there is no easy way for a parent, but show you are there for them, and this is right they cannot be told to stop harming. After trying to get rid of all blades in my house my daughter broke glasses, much more dangerous. A year later she now takes anti-depressants and as far as I know hasn’t harmed for a while, we are a lot closer now but at such a price. The one bit of advice a can try and give, is everytime I knew it had happened I helped her clear up. And just said lets start again..we will get there together but in her time, and I think we did. I also typed out a note for her purse and gave her a lot of plasters/bandages in case it went wrong. Mental illness needs to be taken more seriously and schools helped to understand.

  • Claire

    Claire

    January 18th, 2015 at 12:46 AM

    My daughter had an eating disorder and self harmed. This all got triggered when her gran died whom she was very close to. It was hard and we seeked help yet they were crap. They asked my daughter questions and told me to be quiet and my daughter made out nothing was wrong so they just gave me leaflets on self harm! I then decided to do whatever it took myself. I coached her through everyday, I wouldn’t leave her alone in the house as she got comfort from knowing I was there even if we weren’t in the same room. If I went out I would take her with me, even though she didn’t feel like it I didn’t want her to shut herself off from the world. These outings were only to the shops for food nothing too demanding. Food was about a compromise I knew I couldn’t force her to eat to I would ask what she felt she could manage, and then I would compromise by asking if she could manage an extra chip or piece of veg etc, sounds silly but I wanted to increase her appetite, and in the long run it worked. I took notice of her quirks, ie when it was dinner time she would come down ten min later than everyone else and be in and out of the toilet to delay or put off food this was her panicking, so I would have to coach her into just eating what she could manage, something’s better than nothing. With all of this she self harmed, quite badly. This above everything really upset me. Am I a bad parent? Did I do something to mess her up? What didn’t i do right? All these thoughts go through a parents head and still do to a certain aspect, I won’t ever know. But one thing I do know is that I love her and have always done my absolute best so that has to be enough. I think the key to our success of pulling out of her black hole is going on the notion that she is a person in her own right, she has her own unique personality and emotions the same as all of us, how she process’s these emotions comes down to her individualness, I can as a parent help and guide her but just because she’s my daughter I can’t expect her to be perfect and mistake free. It’s my job as a her mum to walk beside her in these dark times and hold her hand because that’s what pulled her out of it, I was a mum and firm when I needed to be but never cross or angry, probably accepting of what was going on so then I was also her friend. I think that’s where parents make it worse without realising it because it’s easy to panic, but you know they are not just your son or daughter they are a person that may be having a difficult time about something and the worst thing to do is panic and go into denial that makes them feel even worse. I cried infront of my daughter when I found out because I was so sad what she was doing to herself and couldn’t quite believe it, I’m happy that I did as she needed to know that it made me sad but to this day she still says that was the worst feeling seeing me cry. So the best advice I think from one parent to another is be accepting, don’t judge, things take time don’t expect them to never do it again, it’s a process that takes time, just be there every step holding their hand, it will get better, good luck xx

  • Euridice

    Euridice

    January 18th, 2015 at 2:21 AM

    This is scary indeed, I am a parent of a teenager and a girls coming up to teens, I haven’t seen any of those signs but I do talk to them a lot about my own feelings and what are their thoughts about other people’s actions that are hurtful. I do, however know a teenager that cuts and she does it when life becomes too much and she has nobody to talk to and she just feels overwhelmed and unworthy, which of course is not true but all I say is that I am happy that she is well and that she hasn’t cut herself for long periods of time so she should be proud of herself. Basically I make it all about her being a wonderful person, deserving the best and tomorrow will be better just hang there and be strong, I’m always here to talk. I hope this helps.

  • Marci

    Marci

    January 18th, 2015 at 5:05 AM

    As I have been reading the article and each reply, I am glad my daughter and I are not alone. Being a single parent and her being my youngest did make me panic at first. Since the first time she has shut me out. She won’t talk to me. I also took her to a psychiatrist because she also has insomnia and so she was put on meds. What I really need to find for her is a support group with other teens to talk with. All her friends except for one is virtual. I try to handle my stress well but it doesn’t work very well. Thank you.

  • Ann

    Ann

    January 18th, 2015 at 8:38 AM

    My Mom would come home every day screaming and name calling about nothing. I would sit up against my bedroom door and cut my arms, I didn’t know why. I thought maybe I wanted to kill myself. I stopped doing it because my Mom would have really went off if she found out. I couldn’t talk to her about anything. She would make dinner and go to Bingo, 7 nights a week because she hated being at home.

  • Rob

    Rob

    February 20th, 2018 at 7:52 AM

    Please hang in there. I know it’s hard believing that there will come a time when you will be able to get away from your situation and make a better life for yourself, but I promise it will happen. If you ever need to talk to someone just send an email out to me or a message. My Grand-Daughter is having a bad time too. We will get you all through this. Just try and be as strong as you can and don’t give up, ever. Fight to Live Your Life.

  • joann

    joann

    April 28th, 2018 at 1:38 PM

    My son admitted to cutting a few months ago. He’s been hospitalized. He’s been in therapy for over a year. On antidepressants. They put him on anxiety medications which he abused. He admitted to this. He goes to seven subu’s counseling twice a week and he goes to talk therapy once a week. He’s very willing to do this. Recently I discovered he’s cutting again. This time with broken glass as opposed to a razor blade. We spoke about it he denied it at first but then he came clean. At this point my husband and I do not react we just show him love and concern and support. My question is when I find his tools of cutting, should I get rid of them?

  • Marci

    Marci

    January 18th, 2015 at 8:47 AM

    Are there support groups in North Carolina for parents and kids?

  • Danny D

    Danny D

    January 18th, 2015 at 12:24 PM

    Millie! That’s the most important question. Imo, the answer is most definitely not too try to feel differently (as if). It’s to take the amount of time it takes to feel what you’re feeling apart from your child with self-compassion. That should allow you to spend time with your child with compassion. Blessings.

  • Angel

    Angel

    May 4th, 2017 at 2:09 AM

    As soon as I realized what was happening with our daughter, I found this article and used it to guide me through my conversation with her. Thank you for writing it. I would add one piece that seemed to help her a great deal, based on her reaction. I empathized with how much pain she must have been in to cut. So sad for her. I’d say parents may need as much help in dealing with the shock and sadness as their children. My daughter said she didn’t want me to treat her differently, but that feels almost impossible. Of course I want to be there more for her, talk with her more, etc. Hopefully we can figure out how to do that in a way that isn’t off putting.

  • Julie

    Julie

    May 9th, 2017 at 7:48 PM

    My daughter has been suffering from severe anxiety, panic attacks and depression. I saw she cut a couple of times. She has been placed in a private school where she cannot even get in the building. We just changed her medication so waiting to see if the new concoction is working. If she doesn’t get into school, she thinks I am disappointed and she cuts. I think I have everything out of the house that can harm her, but she finds a way. I am a single mother that works full time so it is very difficult, I cannot be home. I am the supporter as I get little help from her father. She has cut so bad that there are scars on her forearm and today, she started striking me. I took her to school, tried to coex her in for 40 minutes. She went into a full blown panic attack and I had to get to work. She punched me twice, she is 13. I went to work thinking I had everything so she could not hurt herself. After a minute from leaving to go to work, I realized there was a pair of scissors in the drawer. Ran back home to find her in the kitchen. Took the scissors out of the drawer and the handle was warm. She told me she did not hurt herself. She went to therapy with her father only because I begged for help. I noticed a pretty bloody bandage in the trash and several make-up sponges with cover up on them. It got me sick to my stomach. This is an honor student with no expectations placed on her and no responsibility. I have been told by her psychiatrist if she cuts, she needs to go back into a partial outpatient program. She has already done 2 weeks in one and did not help at all. Please help if you have any suggestions!

  • Angela Avery, MA, LPC, NCC

    Angela Avery, MA, LPC, NCC

    May 10th, 2017 at 7:30 AM

    Julie:
    I would get her into a therapist who specializes in teens and self-harm asap, preferably someone who knows Dialectic Behavioral Therapy. She is hurting, she is in pain emotionally and copes with it by self-harming. School is secondary to her health right now. You may have to take a leave of absence from work as well to focus on her and slow things down. While it may not be a suicide attempt, it should be taken seriously.

  • Teri

    Teri

    May 20th, 2017 at 7:24 PM

    I suspected my daughter is cutting when I put two and two together after she wore a long-sleeved shirt under a regular t-shirt. I had noticed some of my students with scars on their arms and had the revelation. Well, it was true. She did not want to show me her arms or talk about it. I actually have my master’s in Mental Health Counseling, but right now I am a parent and any training I have went out the window. I immediately ordered a book on Amazon which I am trying to get immediate crucial information from. But what I really want to know is, should I ask her questions, like if something happened to her when she was young? Should I ask her if she has thoughts of suicide? She locks herself in her room and gets very upset when I tell her I want her out in the living room, or not to be shut off in her room for long periods. I am afraid I am going to upset her and cause her to cut. Should I try to find out how long she has been cutting or check her arms periodically? It seems like being aggressive in these ways when she is tight-lipped about it is wrong, and it seems like silence is wrong, too. Where is the middle ground? I am going to find a DBT therapist. But the reality is that I have to live with her and there is an elephant in the room.

  • Angela Avery, MA, LPC

    Angela Avery, MA, LPC

    May 22nd, 2017 at 4:45 AM

    Teri, I would find an adolescent therapist who is experienced in self harm. You can gently ask questions, but more than likely she won’t tell you why she cuts because she may not know directly. It’s a coping mechanism, not an end result. If you want to spend time with her, go hang in her room with her! I would emphasize that you are there for her and want to help, but I would not ask her to show you her arms daily. That’s only one place they cut. She’s already ashamed and it may make it worse. I hope you find a therapist in your area to help.

  • Jolene

    Jolene

    June 5th, 2017 at 6:27 AM

    Hi There,

    My 14 year old step daughter has been living with us since Sep last year. She admitted to me (we were very close) that she is cutting. I could not speak to her for two weeks, did not know how to handle it. We know why she does it (previous trauma whilst living with mom), and we understand the pain, but we are battling to handle it. I have confiscated the the blades , I search her room (without her knowing) and just keep finding more. I am at a point where I just cannot keep calm anymore. She gets therapy from a phycologist, and has been taking anti-depressants for 4 months now. She is rebelious, and we just do not know what to do with her anymore? The mother does not want the responsibility anymore. Please help?? I am about to pack my things and leave my marriage because I just cannot cope anymore. We have given her all the love and support in the world, and it is just not enough anymore.

  • Tammy

    Tammy

    July 14th, 2017 at 7:52 AM

    My daughter is about to turn 15 she has autism, ADHD, and a learning disability. She has been self harming now for 8 months, we have to keep all our knives, blades, etc locked up but she still finds something around the house to use. We have taken her to different doctors and the ER 3 times and they just keep sending her back home. We tried counseling but this counselor told me she couldn’t help my daughter. I am so frustrated as no one is helping her despite our efforts. I don’t know what else to do I am so scared she will eventually succeed in ending her life.

  • Teddi

    Teddi

    August 21st, 2017 at 8:10 AM

    My daughter recently began cutting. She already sees a psychologist and psychiatrist, I’m trying to work with them to help her the best I can. I’m very seriously considering body checks, hiding all the razors, knives, sharpener, etc. My question is, would that do more harm than good? I don’t want to make it worse for her. I just want to help her.

  • Angela Avery, MA, LPC, NCC

    Angela Avery, MA, LPC, NCC

    August 22nd, 2017 at 7:18 AM

    Teddi,
    I would make the house safe and take the offending weapons out. Let’s make it harder for her to be impulsive. I wish her the best.

  • jenifer

    jenifer

    September 28th, 2017 at 2:41 PM

    I recently found out that my son is cutting. It isn’t deep yet. Not even drawing blood however I am terrified that this is just a start. He doesn’t want to talk to me about this and doesn’t seem open to talking with his therapist about it. I think I should tell the therapist but don’t want my son to think that I’m overstepping my bounds. This is a new therapist so he isn’t even established yet with care. His new therapist IS trained with DBT so from what I’ve read that is good. What do you think am I allowed as a parent to break the confidentiality of my son by telling his therapist???

  • Michelle

    Michelle

    December 1st, 2017 at 9:51 PM

    I just found out that my daughter, 14, is cutting herself. Thankfully, her best friend told her mother and the mother called me. My daughter will usually talk to me if there is something going on, but recently had a big blow up with her father (we are divorced) and I noticed a change in her behavior. It’s hard not to feel like I have totally failed her, but I know that I must try to keep a level head as much as possible. Any tips on how to approach the subject with her would be greatly appreciated. I took her to see her counselor three weeks ago and since then her mood has been much better, but the phone call I got tonight suggests that she’s still cutting and perhaps putting on a brave face for me. I’m heartbroken and just want to do whatever I can to help her, but I just don’t know how other than to tell her counselor.

  • Angela Avery, MA, LPC, NCC

    Angela Avery, MA, LPC, NCC

    December 3rd, 2017 at 3:27 PM

    Michelle:
    It’s important to alert her counselor of your concerns. This behavior doesn’t change overnight, so a counselor would need to know how long its been happening. Good luck!

  • Karina

    Karina

    January 14th, 2018 at 6:40 PM

    Is there a number i can call for help??

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    January 14th, 2018 at 8:12 PM

    Dear Karina,

    If you would like to speak with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your info, you’ll be directed to a list of counselors and therapists 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.

    If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, in danger of hurting yourself or others, feeling suicidal, overwhelmed, or in crisis, it’s very important that you get immediate help! Information about what to do in a crisis is available here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

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