Cutting and Self Injury

What is cutting and self-injury?

Self-injury is intentionally harming oneself, oftentimes with the objective of alleviating suffering. Examples of self-injury include cutting the skin with objects, scratching the skin, picking wounds so they can't heal, biting or burning oneself, and more harmful instances that include hitting one's head or breaking bones. Of the many types of self-injury, cutting is the most common. It damages the skin or other tissues, it is rarely associated with suicide attempts, and it is socially unacceptable. People who cut themselves may attempt to hide the marks or scars, and they may give false explanations for how they occurred (e.g. being scratched by a pet). Teens use many different items to cut (e.g. razor blades, scissors, pens, bottle tops, etc.) and it occurs in a variety of body locations (e.g. arms, legs, genital area, abdomen, etc.).

Who is most likely to cut?

Young people of all ethnicities, ages, and income levels intentionally harm themselves. Cutting is most common among adolescent, Caucasian females who come from intact, middle- to upper-class families. Self-injurious behavior oftentimes begins during middle school, and young people are often introduced to it through peer groups and media outlets (e.g. music, television, internet, etc.)

Why do people intentionally injure themselves?

It is unclear why people cut themselves; some explanations include impulsivity, a way to distract from personal pain, feelings of control, and peer pressure. If a person is cutting or engaging in any other form of self-injury, a mental health professional should be consulted. Professionals will use interview techniques to identify reasons why it may be occurring and to provide interventions for effective treatment.

What are the risk factors and signs to watch for?

It is important to remember that each adolescent who cuts is different and not all start or continue for the same reason. In addition, some individuals who cut may not show any of the warning signs. If you believe or know that your child is cutting, it is important to seek professional assistance to assess the reasons why the cutting is occurring and to begin appropriate treatment. Here are some risk factors and signs that have been associated with cutting among adolescents:

Risk Factors

  • Knowledge that friends or acquaintances are cutting
  • Difficulty expressing feelings
  • Extreme emotional reactions to minor occurrences (anger or sorrow)
  • Stressful family events (divorce, death, conflict)
  • Loss of a friend, boyfriend/girlfriend, or social status
  • Negative body image
  • Lack of coping skills


  • Wearing long sleeves during warm weather
  • Wearing thick wristbands that are never removed
  • Unexplained marks on body
  • Secretive or elusive behavior
  • Spending lengthy periods of time alone
  • Items that could be used for cutting (knives, scissors, safety pins, razors) are missing

When Your Child is Cutting

A Parent's Guide to Helping Children Overcome Self-Injury by Merry E. McVey-Noble, Ph.D., Sony Khemlani-Patel, Ph.D., & Fugen Neziroglu, Ph.D.

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