Do You Cut Yourself? Help for Teenagers Who Self-injure

Reviewed Jul 8, 2017

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Summary

  • You’re not alone
  • Can lead to infection or serious injury
  • Tell a loved one
  • Try distraction or substitution

Note: Reading this article could make you feel vulnerable if you self-injure. 

If you regularly injure yourself, you probably often feel alone. You’re not.

Therapist Andrew Levander is the clinical director of a Los Angeles, CA, program dedicated to treating young people like you. He describes the typical person he treats as a girl between the ages of 14 and 17 who cuts herself with a razor blade or glass. Other people who self-injure may hit themselves, pull out their hair, burn themselves, or scratch themselves. Even if you feel like you need to self-injure, Levander and other experts say that it is possible to stop.

Reading this article will not solve your problems, and it is not intended to be a “cure.” It can’t substitute for counseling or assistance from a health care professional. But it might help you take a step toward recognizing and changing your behavior.

You’re not alone

Levander estimates that up to four percent of the general population engages in some form of self-injury. To give you another perspective, another estimate puts the number of people who self-injure at 2 million in the United States alone. The majority of those people are females between the ages of 11 and 26.

People who hurt themselves often share some common feelings. You may recognize some of them: feeling unable to think clearly; experiencing feelings of rage and powerlessness; feeling like an outsider who can’t trust anyone; feeling afraid of punishment, and experiencing anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.   

Why people hurt themselves

“Why?” may be the hardest question for you and other people who self-injure to answer.

Researchers have offered some reasons for this behavior. Self-injury is not a non-fatal suicide attempt. Although some people may appreciate the attention it brings them, it is rarely used just to get attention. Often, researchers say, self-injury may be a way to feel control over the helplessness and anger resulting from abuse, neglect, or other negative experiences. It becomes a coping mechanism for deflecting your distress, turning it into pain that seems understandable and controllable.

Caring for yourself

Even if you don’t mean to seriously hurt yourself when you self-injure, you’re taking big risks. A cut or burn can easily become infected and cause life-threatening complications. Substances that you swallow or inject also can be fatal, even if you don’t think they’re poisonous. 

Keep your wounds clean and burns cared for properly. If you’re unsure about your medical situation, tell someone that you need emergency care.

How do you know if you’re ready to stop?

Deciding to stop self-injury is a very personal decision. You might have to think about it for a long time before you determine whether you’re ready. Your parents and friends can’t make the decision for you. You need to be motivated.

If you decide you want to stop, you may feel uncomfortable, scared, and frustrated at times. If you decide you’re not ready, don’t feel discouraged.

Making a change

If you are ready to make a change, take it slowly. 

Share your feelings

Dealing with the roots of your anger or fear can be painful and scary. But it can be difficult to stop self-injury if you don’t address the real cause.

  • Find loved ones you can talk to about your self-injury. If you can’t talk to your parents, approach a friend or family member.
  • Seek professional help from a counselor or doctor. If you don’t know where to turn, ask a trusted adult or check your local telephone book for a crisis hotline or clinic to call for information.
  • Look for a self-help group. You may find that talking to others in similar situations helps. Ask a trusted adult to help you find a safe online group, or one that meets in person in your area.

Look for patterns

Even though it may be painful, try to record your feelings before, during, and after periods when you self-injure. That may help you learn your own patterns, avoid situations that trigger your behavior and recognize things that help you avert episodes of self-injury.

Try distraction or substitution

Some people find they can distract themselves long enough to avert an episode of self-injury. Keep a list of activities that you enjoy and that require concentration.

You also may want to try substituting activities that produce intense sensations but that don’t involve injuring yourself, such as squeezing ice for a few seconds, drawing on yourself with a red marker, or snapping your wrist with a rubber band.

Resources
 
Helping Teens Who Cut: Understanding and Ending Self-Injury by Michael Hollander. The Guilford Press, 2008.

Stopping the Pain: A Workbook for Teens Who Cut and Self-Injure by Lawrence Shapiro. Instant Help, 2008.

By Kristen Knight
Source: Andrew Levander, MA, MAC; American Self-Harm Information Clearinghouse; BBC News; CNN.com; Discovery Health Channel; Focus Adolescent Services; GuardianUnlimited; The Healing House; Self-injury: You are NOT the only one; Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services; A Bright Red Scream: Self-mutilation and the Language of Pain by Marilee Strong. Viking, 1998; Bodily Harm: The Breakthrough Healing Program for Self-Injurers by Karen Conterio and Wendy Lader, PhD, Hyperion, 1998; Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation by Steven Levenkron. W.W. Norton, 1998; Women and Self-Harm: Understanding, Coping, and Healing from Self-Mutilation by Gerrilyn Smith, Dee Cox and Jacqui Saradjian. Routledge, 1998.

Summary

  • You’re not alone
  • Can lead to infection or serious injury
  • Tell a loved one
  • Try distraction or substitution

Note: Reading this article could make you feel vulnerable if you self-injure. 

If you regularly injure yourself, you probably often feel alone. You’re not.

Therapist Andrew Levander is the clinical director of a Los Angeles, CA, program dedicated to treating young people like you. He describes the typical person he treats as a girl between the ages of 14 and 17 who cuts herself with a razor blade or glass. Other people who self-injure may hit themselves, pull out their hair, burn themselves, or scratch themselves. Even if you feel like you need to self-injure, Levander and other experts say that it is possible to stop.

Reading this article will not solve your problems, and it is not intended to be a “cure.” It can’t substitute for counseling or assistance from a health care professional. But it might help you take a step toward recognizing and changing your behavior.

You’re not alone

Levander estimates that up to four percent of the general population engages in some form of self-injury. To give you another perspective, another estimate puts the number of people who self-injure at 2 million in the United States alone. The majority of those people are females between the ages of 11 and 26.

People who hurt themselves often share some common feelings. You may recognize some of them: feeling unable to think clearly; experiencing feelings of rage and powerlessness; feeling like an outsider who can’t trust anyone; feeling afraid of punishment, and experiencing anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.   

Why people hurt themselves

“Why?” may be the hardest question for you and other people who self-injure to answer.

Researchers have offered some reasons for this behavior. Self-injury is not a non-fatal suicide attempt. Although some people may appreciate the attention it brings them, it is rarely used just to get attention. Often, researchers say, self-injury may be a way to feel control over the helplessness and anger resulting from abuse, neglect, or other negative experiences. It becomes a coping mechanism for deflecting your distress, turning it into pain that seems understandable and controllable.

Caring for yourself

Even if you don’t mean to seriously hurt yourself when you self-injure, you’re taking big risks. A cut or burn can easily become infected and cause life-threatening complications. Substances that you swallow or inject also can be fatal, even if you don’t think they’re poisonous. 

Keep your wounds clean and burns cared for properly. If you’re unsure about your medical situation, tell someone that you need emergency care.

How do you know if you’re ready to stop?

Deciding to stop self-injury is a very personal decision. You might have to think about it for a long time before you determine whether you’re ready. Your parents and friends can’t make the decision for you. You need to be motivated.

If you decide you want to stop, you may feel uncomfortable, scared, and frustrated at times. If you decide you’re not ready, don’t feel discouraged.

Making a change

If you are ready to make a change, take it slowly. 

Share your feelings

Dealing with the roots of your anger or fear can be painful and scary. But it can be difficult to stop self-injury if you don’t address the real cause.

  • Find loved ones you can talk to about your self-injury. If you can’t talk to your parents, approach a friend or family member.
  • Seek professional help from a counselor or doctor. If you don’t know where to turn, ask a trusted adult or check your local telephone book for a crisis hotline or clinic to call for information.
  • Look for a self-help group. You may find that talking to others in similar situations helps. Ask a trusted adult to help you find a safe online group, or one that meets in person in your area.

Look for patterns

Even though it may be painful, try to record your feelings before, during, and after periods when you self-injure. That may help you learn your own patterns, avoid situations that trigger your behavior and recognize things that help you avert episodes of self-injury.

Try distraction or substitution

Some people find they can distract themselves long enough to avert an episode of self-injury. Keep a list of activities that you enjoy and that require concentration.

You also may want to try substituting activities that produce intense sensations but that don’t involve injuring yourself, such as squeezing ice for a few seconds, drawing on yourself with a red marker, or snapping your wrist with a rubber band.

Resources
 
Helping Teens Who Cut: Understanding and Ending Self-Injury by Michael Hollander. The Guilford Press, 2008.

Stopping the Pain: A Workbook for Teens Who Cut and Self-Injure by Lawrence Shapiro. Instant Help, 2008.

By Kristen Knight
Source: Andrew Levander, MA, MAC; American Self-Harm Information Clearinghouse; BBC News; CNN.com; Discovery Health Channel; Focus Adolescent Services; GuardianUnlimited; The Healing House; Self-injury: You are NOT the only one; Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services; A Bright Red Scream: Self-mutilation and the Language of Pain by Marilee Strong. Viking, 1998; Bodily Harm: The Breakthrough Healing Program for Self-Injurers by Karen Conterio and Wendy Lader, PhD, Hyperion, 1998; Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation by Steven Levenkron. W.W. Norton, 1998; Women and Self-Harm: Understanding, Coping, and Healing from Self-Mutilation by Gerrilyn Smith, Dee Cox and Jacqui Saradjian. Routledge, 1998.

Summary

  • You’re not alone
  • Can lead to infection or serious injury
  • Tell a loved one
  • Try distraction or substitution

Note: Reading this article could make you feel vulnerable if you self-injure. 

If you regularly injure yourself, you probably often feel alone. You’re not.

Therapist Andrew Levander is the clinical director of a Los Angeles, CA, program dedicated to treating young people like you. He describes the typical person he treats as a girl between the ages of 14 and 17 who cuts herself with a razor blade or glass. Other people who self-injure may hit themselves, pull out their hair, burn themselves, or scratch themselves. Even if you feel like you need to self-injure, Levander and other experts say that it is possible to stop.

Reading this article will not solve your problems, and it is not intended to be a “cure.” It can’t substitute for counseling or assistance from a health care professional. But it might help you take a step toward recognizing and changing your behavior.

You’re not alone

Levander estimates that up to four percent of the general population engages in some form of self-injury. To give you another perspective, another estimate puts the number of people who self-injure at 2 million in the United States alone. The majority of those people are females between the ages of 11 and 26.

People who hurt themselves often share some common feelings. You may recognize some of them: feeling unable to think clearly; experiencing feelings of rage and powerlessness; feeling like an outsider who can’t trust anyone; feeling afraid of punishment, and experiencing anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.   

Why people hurt themselves

“Why?” may be the hardest question for you and other people who self-injure to answer.

Researchers have offered some reasons for this behavior. Self-injury is not a non-fatal suicide attempt. Although some people may appreciate the attention it brings them, it is rarely used just to get attention. Often, researchers say, self-injury may be a way to feel control over the helplessness and anger resulting from abuse, neglect, or other negative experiences. It becomes a coping mechanism for deflecting your distress, turning it into pain that seems understandable and controllable.

Caring for yourself

Even if you don’t mean to seriously hurt yourself when you self-injure, you’re taking big risks. A cut or burn can easily become infected and cause life-threatening complications. Substances that you swallow or inject also can be fatal, even if you don’t think they’re poisonous. 

Keep your wounds clean and burns cared for properly. If you’re unsure about your medical situation, tell someone that you need emergency care.

How do you know if you’re ready to stop?

Deciding to stop self-injury is a very personal decision. You might have to think about it for a long time before you determine whether you’re ready. Your parents and friends can’t make the decision for you. You need to be motivated.

If you decide you want to stop, you may feel uncomfortable, scared, and frustrated at times. If you decide you’re not ready, don’t feel discouraged.

Making a change

If you are ready to make a change, take it slowly. 

Share your feelings

Dealing with the roots of your anger or fear can be painful and scary. But it can be difficult to stop self-injury if you don’t address the real cause.

  • Find loved ones you can talk to about your self-injury. If you can’t talk to your parents, approach a friend or family member.
  • Seek professional help from a counselor or doctor. If you don’t know where to turn, ask a trusted adult or check your local telephone book for a crisis hotline or clinic to call for information.
  • Look for a self-help group. You may find that talking to others in similar situations helps. Ask a trusted adult to help you find a safe online group, or one that meets in person in your area.

Look for patterns

Even though it may be painful, try to record your feelings before, during, and after periods when you self-injure. That may help you learn your own patterns, avoid situations that trigger your behavior and recognize things that help you avert episodes of self-injury.

Try distraction or substitution

Some people find they can distract themselves long enough to avert an episode of self-injury. Keep a list of activities that you enjoy and that require concentration.

You also may want to try substituting activities that produce intense sensations but that don’t involve injuring yourself, such as squeezing ice for a few seconds, drawing on yourself with a red marker, or snapping your wrist with a rubber band.

Resources
 
Helping Teens Who Cut: Understanding and Ending Self-Injury by Michael Hollander. The Guilford Press, 2008.

Stopping the Pain: A Workbook for Teens Who Cut and Self-Injure by Lawrence Shapiro. Instant Help, 2008.

By Kristen Knight
Source: Andrew Levander, MA, MAC; American Self-Harm Information Clearinghouse; BBC News; CNN.com; Discovery Health Channel; Focus Adolescent Services; GuardianUnlimited; The Healing House; Self-injury: You are NOT the only one; Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services; A Bright Red Scream: Self-mutilation and the Language of Pain by Marilee Strong. Viking, 1998; Bodily Harm: The Breakthrough Healing Program for Self-Injurers by Karen Conterio and Wendy Lader, PhD, Hyperion, 1998; Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation by Steven Levenkron. W.W. Norton, 1998; Women and Self-Harm: Understanding, Coping, and Healing from Self-Mutilation by Gerrilyn Smith, Dee Cox and Jacqui Saradjian. Routledge, 1998.

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