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  • Gary Probst

Why Do Teens and Young Adults Cut and Burn Themselves?


When teens feel sad, distressed, anxious, or confused, the emotions may be so extreme they lead to acts of self-injury (also called cutting, self-mutilation, or self-harm). Most teens that inflict injury on themselves do so because they are experiencing stress and anxiety. Most often they use a knife or razor blade or they will do things such as keeping a screwdriver on the stove and then holding it against their skin.

As illogical as it may sound, the teens and young adults report a sense of relief through the physical pain. Although temporary, this redirection of pain sensation does dull emotional pain, but only for a moment. It has the same effect many over the counter pain salves and lotions have on muscle pain. The brain focuses on the tingle of the menthol or other ingredients of the pain rub and the muscle pain is less apparent to the brain’s sensors. It masks pain. It does not engage the source of the pain.

Cutting and burning of the skin is highly dangerous and when a teen reveals that they’ve been self-harming, they need immediate and intense therapy, along with possible medications to alleviate the anxiety. You must be careful with antidepressants and teens, as some reports indicate a heightened potential for suicide in young brains with antidepressants. Talk with a good family practice doctor of psychiatrist about medications that can help. If placed on antidepressants, keep an extra careful eye on the teen’s behavior.

Self-harming is an indication of a severe level of stress the teen cannot handle correctly. Often dual residences are an issue. Separation and parental divorce can send teens, especially females, into deep depressive states. Listen to your teen. Ask questions. Don’t assume they’re complaining about the other parent for manipulative purposes. That is possible but is not always the case. Investigate and ask questions of the teen and the other parent. Be diligent. Maybe you will need to seek sole custody.

Be aware that self-harm can sometimes stem from parental abuse, such as molestation, beatings or even verbal abuse. However, that’s not always the case. A teen growing up in a loving family may still experience the anxiety that leads to this practice. Societal pressures are immense upon teens, especially girls, who compare themselves to airbrushed images of models and celebrities on television.

If you hear from your teen that a friend is cutting or burning, please get involved. Talk with their parents. If the parents refuse to hear it, you need to contact the local police to ask for social services intervention. This practice is life-threatening, as teens tend to hide the wounds and those wounds can become rapidly infected. Such teens are also in a high-risk category for suicide and need careful supervision and counseling help, asap.


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© 2019, The Matthew Project, Inc., Hartford Counseling and Life Span Family Services