Why Do Kids Cut Themselves?
Understand, Seek Help, Heal
Most kids who cut are trying to cope with overwhelming emotions or circumstances. Professionals equip them with new coping skills that make cutting unnecessary.
When you discover your child struggles with self-harm through cutting, it is devastating and shocking. You will grieve and wonder why it is happening. Take comfort in knowing that most kids who cut themselves are not trying to end their lives but rather are attempting to cope with something they do not know how to handle on their own. Children with histories of trauma, sexual abuse, depression, substance abuse, bullying or relationship difficulties are most likely to cut, and girls are more likely to cut than boys. Your new awareness gives you the opportunity to be supportive and understanding and to seek needed professional help for your child.
Cutting to Cope
The bulk of children who self-harm through cutting are trying to relieve pain rather than cause it. When emotional pain overwhelms their healthy coping skills, kids cut to find a release for their emotional pain, or to focus on a type of pain that is easier to handle than their emotions. The good news is that most of these kids simply want to feel better, and as professionals help them learn new, healthy coping skills that bring needed emotional relief, the compulsion to cut dissipates.
Cutting to Feel
Children with histories of early childhood trauma often learn to dissociate from reality to cope with and survive difficult circumstances. Emotional numbing is a frustrating side effect of dissociation, and some children struggle with wanting to experience a full range of emotions. Some of these children cut themselves in an attempt to feel something, anything. As professionals show children how to become more grounded in the present, the children's emotions naturally begin to surface and cutting lessens, as long as they are also taught how to cope with the emotions that begin to emerge.
Cutting to Punish
Children who have been abused or bullied at home, at school or in other important relationships sometimes internalize what has happened to them and believe that they are to blame. They struggle with feelings of shame, worthlessness and powerlessness, and they often feel quite angry with themselves. When children view life through this lens of self-blame, cutting sometimes becomes a way to punish themselves for what they feel they have done wrong. Trauma-informed professionals are trained to help children learn that they are not to blame for their abuse so that they can direct their anger and shame where it belongs instead of internalizing it.
Cutting to Communicate
Most children who cut try to hide their behavior, but some children cut in obviously noticeable places as a way of asking for help. They hope that their friends or the adults around them will notice that they are in pain, and they want others to care enough to try to help them. They are not seeking attention as much as they are hoping to find self-worth. When these kids are taught how to verbally communicate needs and are equipped with tools for finding the emotional support they need, cutting becomes an unnecessary mode of communication.
While most children who cut are not trying to end their lives, there is a slightly elevated risk for suicide, so they must be promptly evaluated by a mental health professional for suicide risk, as well as checked for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illness. Call your pediatrician or head to the emergency room to get the ball rolling and ensure safety for your child right away. Trauma-informed care providers know how to determine the child's motive for cutting, help them get to the root of their pain and learn new skills for healthier coping, thinking and communication.
- Psychiatric Clinics of North America: The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma
- American Journal of Psychiatry: Childhood Origins of Self-Destructive Behavior
- Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute: Developmental Trauma Disorder
- Janina Fisher: Self-Harm and Suicidality
- National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children: Self-Harm
- Child Mind Institute: What Drives Self-Injury and How to Treat It
- CBS News: Self-Harm Study Finds Kids as Young as 7 Engage in Cutting, Hitting Themselves
- CBS News: Self-Harm Shown Common in Teens: Why Do They Do It?
- Kids Helpline: Self Harm—The Facts
- Psychiatric Times: Treating Self-Harm in Children and Adolescents
- Psychology Today: Speaking the Soul: Why Kids Cut and What We Can Do About It