• Self Harm

    Self-Harm and Cutting in Adolescents

    A Guide for Parents




    Deliberate self-harm, also known as self-injury, refers to the intentional inflicting of physical harm to the body in an attempt to regulate strong emotion and distressing feelings without suicidal intent.



    Individuals who self-harm describe it as a means of coping with a build-up of painful and confusing emotions that they feel unable to share with others.  The external physical pain reduces the feelings of internal distress. Whilst the self-harming behaviour can provide relief from internal distress, this relief is temporary; the urge to repeat the behaviour increases, and becomes compulsive and difficult to stop.



    Most individuals who self-injure go to great lengths to hide their self-harming behaviour and as such it can be extremely difficult for a parent to identify this as a problem with their child.

    Things parents can look for include:

    • Withdrawal from friends, family, social activities
    • Changes in sleeping and eating habits
    • Decreased mood
    • Avoiding sports that require uniforms that have high skin exposure
    • Problems at school
    • Small injuries that cannot be explained like scratches, bruises, burns
    • Wearing long sleeves and pants even in hot temperatures



    There are several ways in which adolescents harm themselves; these can include (but are not limited to) cutting, pulling out hair, scratching, picking at scabs, poisoning, head banging, punching things like walls, bruising bones or skin, and breaking  bones.  One of the most common forms of self-harm is cutting.



    Cutting is a form of self-harm or self-injury that is becoming an increasingly common means of alleviating tension in adolescents and young adults.   Cutting is the act of taking a sharp object and cutting into the skin until it bleeds.  Whilst most of us cannot understand why our young people would want to injure themselves in this way, studies have shown that the act of cutting releases endorphins and produces a temporary sense of relief which, for a young person who has trouble regulating their emotions, is enough to make this practice repetitive and addictive.

    Individuals who cut will generally cut themselves on their arms, the tops of their legs, stomach, or in places that can be easily hidden.  A sign that an individual may be cutting is if they start wearing long sleeve shirts or jumpers all the time, even when it is hot.  They may withdraw from dance or sporting programmes such as swimming and football due to the uniforms/costumes not providing adequate cover of skin.

    The cuts made are usually shallow and cutters generally believe they cannot do themselves any harm. This however is not true.  Repeated and ongoing cutting may lead to deeper cuts that require stitches, and nerve and bone marrow damage. Cutting often results in scarification that can last for life.


    Who is cutting?

    Cutting generally begins in the adolescent years and lasts on average for 5 to 10 years. There is increasing evidence to suggest that cutting is more common in middle to upper class young women of above average intelligence, although it is also seen in young men and women from all walks of life.


    Studies have shown that adolescents are at high risk of cutting if:

    – They have experienced early trauma such as sexual abuse or been exposed to domestic violence.

    – They smoke, drink and/or take drugs.

    – They have an eating disorder

    – They are experiencing a family break up or separation between their parents.

    – Their friends are self-harming

    – They have low self esteem

    – They are confused about their sexual orientation.


    Why do individuals cut?

    It is very important to recognise that cutting is not considered suicidal behaviour, most individuals who cut have no intention of taking their lives.  They are also not engaging in this activity to gain attention.  Most individuals who cut go to great lengths to keep the cuts covered so that other people cannot see what they have been doing.  Often there is a great deal of shame and guilt around the fact they cut and that they cannot seem to stop.

    Many individuals who cut advise that they cut:

    • In order to gain a sense of control or self-control when they feel their internal and sometimes external environments are out of control.
    • Because they feel angry and do not know how to express this anger to those around them.
    • Because they do not feel anything at all.  They experience an emotional numbness and cutting makes them feel something.
    • They do not know how to express strong emotions.
    • They feel alone, that no one understands them.
    • Have a history of feeling frightened or anxious.

    What can I do if my child is cutting?

    It can be terrifying to discover that your child is cutting.  Often as parents we can feel helpless and afraid and as a result react in ways that are both unhelpful and possibly more damaging to our child.  It is difficult to discover that our child is cutting and not fear that they will take their lives or injure themselves permanently.

    There are several things that we can do:

    1) Talk to your child.  Ask them if they are cutting and let them know you are asking because you care about them.  Try not to be judgemental; there is a lot of shame involved in cutting and discussing this with a parent can be very difficult and embarrassing.

    2) If your child does not wish to discuss things with you or minimises their behaviour, advise them that you would like to take them to speak to someone who can help such as a School Counsellor or a Psychologist.

    3) Let them know that you are sorry they are experiencing such emotional confusion and that they feel the need to harm themselves.

    4) Be honest and open about your feelings.

    5) Let them know that you will help them in whatever way you can.

    Things not to do

    1) Tell them to just stop it

    2) Hide all instruments in the house that they may use to harm themselves

    3) Get angry

    4) Punish them

    5) Minimize the behaviour as a phase or for attention

    6) Tell other people such as friends’ parents

    7) Blame yourself to your child as this can increase their feelings of guilt.


    If you would like to know more about self-harm and cutting or feel that your family may need some support you can call Eliza on 0417910911.

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