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You Found Out Your Daughter is Cutting – What Should You Do?

Embark Behavioral Health
October 21, 2021

Cutting tends to be more prevalent in teen girls; however, young males engage in self-injury, too. Up to 30 percent of teen females in the United States report they have intentionally injured themselves; whereas, about one teen male out of ten reports the same.

Why Teens Cut — And Possible Reasons Why It’s More Prevalent In Girls 

Kristi Camomile, assistant clinical director at New Haven Residential Treatment Center, offers a few explanations as to why teen girls are more likely to engage in cutting as a form of self-injury: 

“Teenage girls mature emotionally sooner than boys. Teenage girls are more likely to be diagnosed with mood disorders in their early teens.” 

When you couple managing intense emotions and puberty, it can be a lot to handle for teen girls, especially if they are very sensitive or find it hard to manage emotional distress. The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive by Dr. Thomas Boyce, an emeritus professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, is a book Camomile often recommends to parents raising teenage girls who fall into this category. She summarizes one of the book’s main points: 

“Teenage girls [who are] ‘orchids’ are even more emotionally fragile than other girls their age. Cutters would say that this is their way to ‘release the pain.’” 

This article by Psychology Today references Boyce’s work, and mentions that “behaviorally, orchid children have temperamental traits that indicate high emotional reactivity,” and that “reactivity can be positive or negative.” 

Cutting or self-injury can be used as a means to gain or feel in control or as a method of experiencing relief from emotional pain, where the physical pain serves as a coping mechanism from psychological distress. 

The Signs of Self-Injury 

Self-harm can be difficult to identify, as it’s typically done in secret. Most young people will cover up any cuts or marks with long sleeves or make excuses if scars are spotted. There are signs of cutting for which to watch. Pay attention to if they’re consistently covering up certain parts of their body, such as with a long-sleeved shirt, if they develop a fascination with self-injury, if you spot injuries or similar marks on their skin, or if they’re self-isolating more than usual. Events and mental health issues that can trigger self-injury include anxiety, stress, depression, and rejection. 

What to Do When You See Signs of Self-Harm While Raising a Teenage Girl 

You may spot the warning signs or clear indications of self-harm, or your child may tell you that they’re engaged in self-harm behavior.

“Seeing cuts on your child or a child refusing to show you cuts are a sign that help is needed,” Camomile says. However, some teens will show off their scars or cuts, which should also be seen as a cry for help. 

If your teenage daughter is intentionally harming herself, know that you are not alone, and it’s important that they don’t feel that way either. You can find help from a mental health professional. “The most important thing to remember is that your daughter is seeking relational security which combats the loneliness, shame, and pain which generates the cutting,” Camomile adds.  

She advises that the best reaction from those parenting teenage girls is to seek information on an emotional level. 

Ideal responses include: 

  • “You must be experiencing tremendous feelings to motivate you to cut.” 
  • “Life must feel difficult… I can see that the cutting is a sign of suffering.” 
  • “How long have you been feeling this way?” 
  • “I want to share that hurt with you.”   

Camomile points out that there’s no need to start asking ‘why’ questions immediately.

Fear can elicit harsh responses, but it’s important to come from a place of nurturing. “The worst way to respond is to tell a child that they are ‘attention-seeking,’” she adds.

Even if the child is asking to be seen, it’s critical that they feel like their own feelings are validated by their parents. “[It’s] not acceptance of the behavior, but [it’s an] acknowledgment that your teen is hurting,” Camomile notes for those raising teenage girls. 

Camomile recognizes that finding out that your teenage daughter is engaging in self-harm is terrifying as a parent. She adds: 

“Often parents associate cutting with suicide, and often there is not an association.”  

Unless a child reports that they are actively suicidal or the cut requires immediate medical attention, it may not be necessary to jump to the same level of intervention as one would who is raising a teenage girl who is suicidal.  

If you feel like your teen is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. 

However, while cutting or self-harm are not always indicators of suicidal thoughts, suicidal ideation, or a warning sign of an attempt, those parenting teenage girls need to note that non-suicidal self-injury can be very dangerous. Medical complications, severe injury, and death can occur in instances where a teenager causes more harm to themselves than they intended, making it just as serious as a suicide attempt. 

Getting Help for Your Daughter If She’s Cutting 

As soon as possible, parents raising teenage girls engaged in self-harm should seek professional help from their primary care provider or a clinical professional.  

Camomile recommends getting professional help from a therapist as well as a pediatrician. “The doctor may recommend that the child start seeing a psychiatrist if medication is recommended to help with symptoms of mental illness such as anxiety or depression,” she adds. 

The recommended treatment may vary based on the situation, and a therapist will be able to assess the best course of treatment for your teenage daughter. When parenting teenage girls, helping them develop the relational skills to reinforce co-regulation will facilitate the integration of coping skills needed to regulate emotions in healthier ways and manage distress. A therapist will likely facilitate your family and daughter into effectively utilizing those valuable skills. “A therapist will also seek to get at the root of the […] ‘real’ issue,” Camomile says.

Parents raising teenage girls will need to be willing to actively participate in treatment that is recommended by a professional. Camomile notes: 

“Remember that this is a family issue and not just the child’s.” 

It’s also important to notify the school counselor if the child has also been cutting at school. 

Self-harm is an indicator that mental health care is necessary. In creating a mental health network of doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, counselors, and loved ones, you’ll be able to get the assistance your family needs. 

This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.

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