Cutting and Self Harming

Dr Helena Torpinski|General dermatology
5 March 2020



Self harm, cutting or injuring oneself in a non-suicidal manner is a scary and growing issue, often most prevalent in teens and young adults.

It can take the form of chronic picking, cutting, burning and stabbing, among other things.

It’s a distressing condition that often leaves parents, families, friends and loved ones feeling heart broken, scared and at a loss as to why a person would do this to themselves.

What is self harming?

According to the Mayo Clinic typical acts of self harm include:

  • Cutting: cuts or severe scratches with a sharp object.
  • Scratching
  • Burning with a lit match, cigarette or hot sharp object like a knife
  • Carving words or symbols on the skin
  • Hitting or punching
  • Piercing the skin with sharp objects
  • Pulling out hair
  • Chronic picking at or interfering with wound healing

Most self harming teens find good ways to hide their scars. But family and friends may notice:

  • Behavioural and emotional instability, moodiness, impulsivity, unpredictability.
  • social withdrawal
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Expressions of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness
  • The teenager may wear long sleeves/pants even in hot weather
  • There may be unexplained blood in the bathroom, on clothing or on bedlinen
  • Scars often in patterns
  • Unexpected or unexplained cuts, bruises, bite marks or other wounds.

Why do people engage in cutting or self harm?

A survey by the Department of Health found that as many as one in ten Australian teenagers have engaged in self harm at some stage in their lives, including a staggering quarter of Australian teen girls aged 16 to 17.

Self harming is a compulsive behaviour exhibited by a wide range of age , gender, socioeconomic and racial demographics. However, it remains most prevalent amongst adolescents, in particular teenage girls.

Adolescence is a trying time for both the teenager and for their family. The teenager is trying to develop their own identity outside or their family.

Self- harm indicates extreme stress, inability to cope and most certainly a cry for help.

Hormone rollercoasters also play their part, as does a teenager’s increasing sense of self-awareness, and the developing sense of new social realities. This turmoil can be expressed in many ways, including self harming.

There can be underlying mental health problems contributing to self harm also, though this is not always the case.

It’s important to note that self harm, cutting and the like are not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, it is a harmful coping mechanism in response to emotional pain, frustration and intense anger.

The difficult role of parents of a self harming teen

Discovering your child is cutting, burning or self-harming in any way is shocking for a parent.

Parents can feel shocked, confused, angry, guilty, betrayed and even repulsed. And they’ll most certainly feel scared of where this might lead and what the future might hold for their precious little girl or boy.

Hard as it may be, parents need to put their own feelings to one side and concentrate on the reasons behind their children’s self harm, rather than the self harm itself.

Remember that your child cannot stop self harming just because you want them to or because you tell them to. Self injury isn’t something that can be stopped with will power.

Understanding that this behaviour is simply the reality for now is important. It is your child’s coping mechanism – their way of dealing with their  emotions.

You also cannot physically restrain your child from harming themselves. But that doesn’t mean you have to put up with absolutely anything. You certainly don’t have to accept or approve of their self harming.

Your role is to support, care for and try to understand your child’s experiences and emotions. One way to do this is to communicate that you accept where they are now, without judgement, and that you can provide support to move forward.

There can be clear boundaries put in place, primarily that your child agrees to keep talking to you, another parent or a caregiver and they should seek professional help.

Keep reassuring them that your love is unconditional and that you will help them find someone to whom they feel comfortable talking about their feelings and behaviours.

When you discover your child is cutting, burning or self harming.

If you have discovered your child is self-harming:

  • Calmly provide first aid to any injuries, no fussing or panicking
  • Get medical attention for anything that looks serious
  •  If it looks urgent, call emergency services on 000
  •  Seek further information  from a professional such as your GP, a school counsellor or a psychologist
  • Research the Beyond Blue or Black Dog websites.
  •  Seek support and/or therapeutic help for yourself from a counsellor, psychologist, spiritual advisor or other professional. This will, without doubt, be distressing for you and whether or not your child is willing to get help for their condition, there is no reason you should not seek your own help and support from professionals. Doing so may even demonstrate to your child that this is a completely acceptable choice when life is hard and emotions are tough. Looking after yourself can make it easier to support your child.

Treating self harm, cutting and burn scars.

This blog is the first in a series about self harm scarring and in our next blog we will discuss the treatment options for self harm scars.

Rest assured that self harm scars don’t have to stay with you or your child for life.

Read about general scar treatments here.

If you are worried about you or your child self harming

As mentioned above, we recommend seeking professional help for self harming cases. Your GP can be a great first step and will have all the necessary information.

If you want to discuss treating self harm scars, you can make an appointment to consult with our dermatologist but calling our receptionists on (02) 9953 9522.