Self-Mutilation: Teens and Cutting

ss260621.jpgSome young people today live in a world that goes “over the edge.” The “edge” of pain doesn’t stop them in their pursuit of eliminating boredom and creating excitement. Piercing, branding, cutting, tattoos, cosmetic surgery, reality shows (where fear isn’t a factor), and “mule” movies are now a part of the culture. Some say they’re “daring.” I say they’re numb and dissatisfied…and pain is a way for some to remind themselves that they’re still alive, a comment I hear from a number of cutters.  Finding a kid who cuts is pretty common today, sadly enough.

I used to think that cutting was always a symptom of a greater problem like mental illness, sexual abuse, or other crazy behaviors that sometimes fall into that category of “different” and only understood with an explanation of psychiatric jargon. Some cutting behaviors can be symptomatic of psychiatric or mental illness (e.g. borderline personality disorders, bi-polar or manic depressiveness, and anxiety disorders) but not all are.

Not just “crazy people do crazy things.” Kids that cut themselves come from all walks of life, from all backgrounds, and from every type of family you can think of. What was once confined to mental hospitals has for teens become a new way of coping and has entered the mainstream of discussion among our teens. It’s here, and it doesn’t look like it will disappear any time soon any more than any other inappropriate behavior.

What is Cutting?

Simply put, it’s a cut or many cuts that are self-inflicted. The actual behavior is just the symptom of something else going on in your child’s life. The fact that they “chose” cutting as the behavior to get somewhere else is because it is “available,” “acceptable” (in their world), and it is “achievable.”

All behavior is goal-oriented. Your child’s goal with cutting is coping with whatever is causing stress in his or her life. Cutting is chosen because it has been talked about at school, something that others are doing. Cutting distracts a teen from whatever causes the negative feelings she’s had, and she gets some temporary relief.

Now, you and I probably do a similar “dance,” we just dance to some different music. We go run for an hour. We work out. We go to a movie. We do whatever we do in hopes of feeling something different for a short period of time. Youth are no different. Cutting takes their minds off of their cares.

Cutting is a serious issue, however, and it can lead to a lifetime of shame and despair. For a child to go to such lengths to find relief is scary. So, don’t ignore it. I’ve observed that most that “cut” or “scratch” have expended or tried other ways of negative coping with particular issues and are willing to do just about anything short of suicide to get through whatever they’re dealing with.


1. The Experimental Cutter

These kid may be cutting for no reason at all. They just want to know what it feels like and, more times than not, just scratch or touch themselves with a hot utensil, learning quickly that what all the fuss is about, is not about them. They walk away and never revisit the “cutting thing” again.

2. The Show-Off Cutter

The one who cuts to show off goes a little further than the one who is captivated by experiment and intrigue. This is one who has the tendency to be a drama queen, perhaps thrive on conflict, and displays self-centeredness in sometimes the oddest of ways. They thrive in negative attention for it is better than no attention. Feeling a lack of positives to display to gain attention, they hope to attract through showing off negatives. The more attention they can get from their actions the better. They happen to pick up cutting because it just happens to be the thing that gains attention.

3. The Shock Cutter

Some cut for the shock factor. They look at you and let you know that you don’t have control over them while they express a strong desire for independence and their own control. People wonder why some kids cut, and my response is always, “It’s got your attention doesn’t it?”

4. The Rebellious Cutter

These cutters differ from the shockers. While shockers usually do it as a cry for something, these are doing something to make you cry. They are bent on causing misery for someone else, and are willing to endure the pain to see the person suffer. It is not self-harm in their eyes…it’s done to harm you, to embarrass you. Their anger is so intense that they would sacrifice themselves to make you miserable. Their actions are dominated by a “screw you” mentality that is deep rooted in anger. It may be a type of thought process that includes the following:

– Mom and Dad, look how you guys have messed up my life…now you’ll pay.

– Why did you allow this to happen to me?

– I’ll show everyone….look what they’ve done to me?

– You think I have it all together? I’ll show you!

5. The Self-Punishment Cutter

This is the type of cutter that becomes a little more serious, a whole lot deeper in the issues, and necessitates a recovery process that demands counseling and help with thinking patterns behind the actions of cutting. It’s a longer process, and this type of cutter, along with those listed below (distraction, coping, guilt & shame, and mental issues) may require hospitalization, other professional help, or intense supervision as one must be kept safe (free from cutting) during the process of counseling and therapy.

6. The Distraction Cutter

It’s hard to imagine pain so great that creating more pain would take the focus off the original pain. This is a common answer that I hear to the question of why people cut.

7. The Coping Skill Cutter

Several times I have been so mad in my life that I’ve just wanted to punch the wall or put my fist through the wall, or hit something. The anger builds up, the intensity increases and bam, it happens. It’s the same thing when some young people cut. It’s that release of intensity. Some call it anger management with the excuse that “it’s better to hurt myself than someone else”.

8. Mental Issues and Cutting

There are times that cutting is a sign of mental issues. Mental problems are rooted in incorrect thinking patterns that are sometimes displayed in bizarre behaviors. Cutting can be one of those “bizarre behaviors.”

Dealing with Cutters

The key to resolution of any issue is to get to the heart of the issue. And the best way to get to the heart of the issue is through a relationship….one that says to them, “I’ll walk with you through anything, and I’ll stand in front of you if you’re moving to a place that you don’t want to be.” That’s the easy part. The hard part is taking apart the puzzle and seeing the logic, progression, thinking, and habits have moved this cutter to where he/she is.

I would encourage you to consider these thoughts when dealing with a child you find to be a cutter.

1. Don’t panic. If medical attention is needed for your child’s cutting, then get that medical attention immediately. A cut is a cut regardless of how it got there. This should be your first concern. You must do whatever you need to do to insure their safety.

2. Don’t neglect the obvious or be afraid to talk about cutting if you think your child is doing so. Keep asking, in hopes of finding an “open door” for discussion. If that door is closed, it is imperative that you try some new techniques to get the door open or immediately find someone for your son/daughter to talk to. And if your child is not willing, you seek counsel to determine ways to force your child to respond to the situation.

3. Seek counsel. Every child is different, and so is every situation. Unless one has been around cutting and had experience dealing with self-harm issues, or has done so themselves and have worked through their issues, I wouldn’t put too much hope in that person being able to “connect” with your child. Finding the right counselor is key, and driving a couple of hundred miles to meet with them is not asking too much in dealing with a behavior and mindset that is going to require wisdom, tenacity, and gentle but firm intervention.

4. In some cases, apply consequences for cutting when determined to be effective. As I’ve said, not all cutters need to be given “discipline” for cutting. Determine that need based upon the counsel, wisdom, and direction from those who have been involved with cutters and know the steps to resolve.

5. Connect with the cutter in other ways that aren’t surrounded by cutting issues. A parent or youth worker is not using wisdom in pursuing the issues of teens with them without having some type of relationship. Most kids want to know that they’ll continued to be loved even when they mess up. It’s easy to love someone when they’re doing well….its harder when they’re not doing so well. They want to know the latter.

6. Don’t be afraid of having your child on medication. If it is going to help them think better, pull out of their depression, or balance their emotions, then I would encourage it. Medicine is medicine, and it’s beneficial whether its in the arena of dentistry or psychiatry.

7. Develop a system of accountability around your child with family and friends. Most people wait to show the desire to develop relationships with their child after the problems arise. Have the relationship intact before the difficult years arrive. And if you think that you’re child is immune from having issues, or that they aren’t capable of struggle through their teen years, I would suggest that you pull your head out of the sand.

8. Get to the root of the issue. Remember, it’s not the behavior that is the issue. Just getting your child to stop cutting will not solve the problems. Ignore the deeper issues and you’ll find that they’ll pop up disguised as other behaviors.

9. Don’t minimize the problem or think that this really isn’t as big as everyone thinks it is. Cutting is not an attempt at suicide. But, there are those that have committed suicide who have been cutters. Moms and Dads, this is serious stuff and its going to demand serious (and immediate) help. Ignoring the obvious could prove catastrophic.

10. Do whatever you have to do to insure your child’s safety. This may mean that they are supervised 24-7. It may mean that they need to be hospitalized.

By Mark Gregston (

More help for parents and resources on teens who are cutting can be found at Heartlight Ministries, a residential program for troubled teens at

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