Alternative Coping Strategies for Teens Who Cut

As a parent, you can help your teenager find alternative ways to cope with teen self harm like cutting and burning. Cutting or harming oneself is a sign that your teen cannot cope with their current reality and is looking for ways to release the internal trauma or fear. Parents need to step in and help the teen to find the right coping strategies other than cutting themselves.

Key Healthcare seeks to guide you on what teen cutting is, some alternative coping mechanisms to help your teen recover from cutting behavior, and how and when to seek professional help for teen cutting behavior.

Understanding Teen Cutting

Teen-cutting behavior is a form of Non-Suicidal Self-Injury where your teen deliberately makes marks on their skin using sharp objects. It is the most common form of self-harm affecting around 70% of teens who cut. Cutting behavior is not usually a sign of attempted suicide but can sometimes be fatal. Fatality from self-harm behavior is rare since the methods used are unlikely to be lethal.

If your teen cuts, they may be doing it for several reasons. The most common reason for teen self-harm is to cope with emotional pain, sadness, and stress. Your teen may face difficulties in school, like bullying, making it difficult to process their emotions effectively. They resort to self-harm as a release for these complex emotions since it offers momentary relief from emotional pain. Your teen may experience the same guilt and shame as the negative emotions return.

Cutting is not an effective coping strategy since it does not address the root cause of the pain but merely relieves the pain briefly. Parents can help to ensure their teen develops healthier coping mechanisms that address the root cause of the emotional turmoil and do not involve violence.

Another common reason why teens cut is to regain control of their lives. Teens are in a vulnerable stage of development where hormonal imbalances and some mental health conditions may cause them to feel like they have lost control of their lives. There is a strong link between borderline personality disorder in teens (BPD), a mental health condition that makes teens act impulsively and have difficulty regulating their emotions, and self-harm behaviors.

If your teen suffers from BPD, they may develop cutting behavior to help them regulate their emotions and regain control of their lives. Most teens suffering from BPD report cutting have helped them feel relieved after an episode.

BPD can be treated using other safer methods, and it’s important to ensure your teen does not self-harm as a self-treatment tool. Ensure you get proper treatment for your teen if they suffer from BPD.

Signs of Cutting Behavior

If your teen cuts, they may go to great lengths to hide their actions. Some signs of cutting behavior include the following:

  • Scars on arms and thighs
  • Fresh cuts on arms and thighs
  • Wearing long-sleeved clothing even when it is hot to hide skin
  • Refusing to participate in activities like swimming that may show skin
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Teenage isolation
  • Comments about unworthiness, helplessness, and hopelessness
  • Refusing to participate in activities they once enjoyed

If your teen exhibits any of the above signs and symptoms, they may engage in an unhealthy coping mechanism such as self-harm to manage their emotional trouble. If you notice these signs, intervening and talking about self-harm is important.

Alternative Coping Strategies for Teens Who Cut

Encourage your teen to find alternative coping mechanisms rather than cutting. Alternative strategies will ensure they lead a healthy lifestyle because cutting or self-harming is never the right way to cope with any problem. Some healthy non-suicidal self-Injury coping strategies for teens include popping bubble wrap, taking a walk, hiking, exercising, practicing mindfulness, making art, playing music, practicing self-care, and self-expression.

Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques

What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is an important aspect of teen dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) that involves taking a moment and appreciating the present. This can help your teen only focus on what is around them and leave the urge to cut behind. Mindfulness can be incredibly grounding and effective for preventing unhealthy coping mechanisms. Mindfulness utilizes several techniques and skills to help teens beat the urge to cut. Some mindfulness-based interventions for cutting in adolescents include the following:


Breathing is one of the most important aspects of mindfulness. It involves utilizing breathing techniques to induce calm. If your teen wants to self-harm, they are advised to stop and take some time to breathe. Breathwork involves a long exhale to remove all the air from the lungs, followed by a long breath in. As they breathe in, they should count to eight, hold their breath in for 4 seconds and exhale again until all the air is out of their lungs. Repeating this sequence of breathing exercises can have a calming effect on them. This exercise should be done for about 10 minutes for effectiveness.

Urge Surfing

Another aspect of mindfulness is urge surfing. It is a challenge-based activity where when your teen gets the urge to self-harm, they should challenge themselves to put off the urge for a set period. For example, if your teen wants to cut, they should set a 10-minute timer and sit with the urge for the specified time.

After the time lapses and the urge has not gone, they should set another timer until it is gone. Urge surfing can be effective when coupled with a reward system. If your teen completes urge surfing, they should reward themselves using something like ice cream to build a positive reinforcement mechanism.


When your teen feels the urge to cut arising, observation helps them pay attention to the urge. It’s helpful if they observe the sensations they get when they want to cut and analyze their emotions. This helps your teen stay in the present and not focus on their solution to emotional dysregulation. It can be difficult to master because it involves facing your temptation head-on, but it can be very effective once mastered.

Riding the Wave

Rising the wave involves analyzing the urge to cut and imagining it as a wave. Waves have crests and troughs. Imagining the urge as a wave helps teens understand when the urge will peak and when it will go down. Riding the wave can be done during observation or urge surfing. By sitting with the urge and analyzing its cycles, your teen can build tolerance and resilience to self-harm behavior.

Distraction Activities

The last part of mindfulness is doing something else. Teens who feel the urge to cut should find something to do that keeps their hands busy. Pre-occupied hands tell your brain that they are busy and cannot engage in cutting. Tasks such as painting, drawing, cooking, crocheting, knitting, and popping bubble wrap occupy your hands and reduce the urge to cut.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

The body’s natural response to stressful situations is muscle tension. Progressive muscle relaxation can reduce stress by breaking the tension in your muscles and inducing a state of calm.

How can your teen perform progressive muscle relaxation? First, they need to tense a group of muscles as they breathe. After, it’s helpful if they relax the muscle group while breathing out. Repeating this cycle for 10 minutes can help teens develop a tool to cope with the urge to self-harm. This technique helps teens learn the difference between tensed and relaxed muscle groups. Knowing the difference helps them know when their body is stressed and how to manage it.

Self-Care and Creative Expression

How can you help your teen get into self-care? Self-care entails listening to the body’s needs, checking in, and challenging belief systems. An approach you can use to help your teen get into self-care involves the following steps:

  • Find out what makes your teen feel grounded. Self-care involves finding things that make your teen feel fulfilled and happy. The first step of getting into self-care is finding such activities to incorporate into their daily routines. These activities work wonders for self-harming teens since they help them to be joyous and calm.
  • Brainstorm how to incorporate such activities into their daily lives. To effectively engage in self-care, you need to incorporate fulfilling activities into your teen’s daily life. This will help them self-reflect and enjoy themselves. It may start small, but they can quickly build a habit of doing these activities, helping them reduce the urge to self-harm.
  • Set goals that aim to change behavior daily. Setting goals is an important part of self-care since it targets the brain’s reward system. Achieving goals and incorporating positive reinforcement can help your teen overcome the urge to self-harm.
  • Find or build a support structure. You need to help your teen build a support structure to keep them accountable. Support begins at the family level; you should always support your teen. You can also help them find support groups that will help them maintain a sustainable self-care regimen.
  • Adjust their goals as they progress. Setting new goals as your teen progresses helps them adapt and grow further. This also helps them build a sustainable self-care regimen by creating a habit.

Helping your teen maintain proper hygiene, meditate, get into art, and play musical instruments can help them develop a sustainable self-care routine.

Creative Expression

Creative expression is an important part of self-care. Self-expression has numerous benefits, such as reducing stress, managing emotions, and elevating mood. Activities like art and music can help your teen enter a zen-like state where they solely focus on the task. Music therapy and art therapy reduce the emotional burden that teens with self-harm behaviors struggle with.

Expressing themselves through creativity has been shown to help many people overcome emotional hardships and improve their mental health.

Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment for Teens Who Cut

Finding out your teen cuts can be heartbreaking. You might experience guilt, shame, anger, and frustration because you blame yourself for how your teen copes with stressful situations. It is important to understand that it is not your fault. As you feel these emotions, it is important to remember to support your teen to help them recover from self-harm. The first step of support is creating a safe and supportive environment.

How can you create a safe and supportive environment for your teen? The first step is creating an environment where your teen feels safe emotionally and physically. Self-harm can be caused by family conflict, assault, sexual abuse, and bullying. By addressing these issues at home, you can make sure your teen feels safe and secure.

If there is family conflict, diffusing the situation by resolving the problems can go a long way to help your teen feel safe. You can report bullying and assault to the relevant authorities to ensure your teen is physically safe. Another thing you need to do to ensure their physical safety is to remove sharp objects they use to cut from their rooms.

To make your teen feel emotionally safe, ensure you show them love and not shame. As a parent or caregiver, you must show your teen that you love them despite their challenges. You can show support and love by talking to them empathetically. Show your compassion for them by separating them from their struggles. This will build trust and rapport, encouraging your teen to come to you with their struggles. Avoid using triggering words that may cause them to shut you out.

Give your teen some space if they do not want to talk about the issue but assure them you are available to talk. It would help to encourage them to be independent since you trust them. Teens who self-harm struggle with guilt, and showing them they can be trusted helps them recover from guilt.

How to Talk to Your Teen About Cutting

If you suspect your teen is cutting, you need to intervene immediately. You can do this by raising your concerns about the subject. When talking to them, use an empathetic tone to show that you understand and love them. Some things that help when talking to them include the following:

  • Do not be judgmental
  • Let your teen know you are there for them
  • Relate to them as an individual
  • Use empathy to show them you understand their position
  • Encourage them to be independent and that they are in charge of their decisions
  • Offering support for teens with non-suicidal self-injury through alternative coping strategies
  • Encourage them to think about themselves positively
  • Encourage open communication

To learn more check out our guide on how to communicate with your teenager

Seeking Professional Help

If your teen’s cutting behavior worsens or cannot be managed at home, seeking professional help is important. Luckily, if you live in the greater Los Angeles area, Key Healthcare has got you covered.

Key Healthcare is a treatment facility specializing in treating teen mental health and substance abuse issues, including self-harm behavior in teens. We offer various services depending on the level of care your teen needs. Our services include Teen Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), Adolescent Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), and Teen Residential Treatment Center (RTC). These services run for varying lengths to ensure your teen recovers fully.

Key Healthcare focuses on family-based interventions for teen self-harm, meaning our therapies involve family participation.

We utilize evidence-based therapeutic approaches for self-harm adolescents, like cognitive behavioral therapy for teens (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). CBT utilizes its structure to help teens change their thoughts and behaviors. It is premised on the idea that thoughts and behaviors are connected and changing one’s thoughts will affect their behavior.

CBT can be utilized during individual, group, and teen family therapy to ensure your teen manages their thoughts and emotions. Some benefits of CBT include cognitive restructuring, stress management, problem-solving, and guided discovery. These benefits help your teen recover from cutting behavior and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

DBT for teens can be very effective in treating self-harm behavior since it was originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder. Since there is a strong link between BPD and self-harm, DBT is an effective tool. It is premised on the idea that two opposing thoughts can co-exist and both be true. It helps teens accept themselves as they work to change their behavior. Through phone coaching, DBT can be utilized in teen group therapy and teen individual therapy and in times of crisis. Some benefits of DBT include mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotional regulation.

Key Healthcare utilizes holistic and recreational approaches such as art, music, yoga, and surf therapy to help your teen manage stress and develop healthy coping mechanisms. These activities encourage introspection, self-expression, stress management, emotional regulation, identity exploration, problem-solving, and improved coping skills.

Key Healthcare also offers academic support to ensure your teen does not fall behind in school. Our qualified academic tutors and coaches help your teen learn as they receive treatment for teen self-harm.

Key Healthcare only employs qualified staff to ensure your teen receives high-quality treatment. Our staff develops individualized treatment plans for teens to meet all their needs. We also accept most private insurance covers to ensure little to no out-of-pocket costs. This ensures everyone can receive treatment. You can confirm your coverage by verifying your insurance on our website. Contact Key Healthcare today to receive professional help for your teen suffering from self-harm behavior.


In conclusion, cutting is an unhealthy coping mechanism teens develop to cope with stressful emotions. Helping your teen develop alternative coping mechanisms such as popping bubble wrap, exercising, yoga, meditation, painting, sculpting, and hiking can ensure your teen does not engage in self-harm behavior.

You can teach them these skills through mindfulness, creative expression, self-care, and progressive muscle relaxation. It is important to talk to your teen about self-harm in an empathetic way to ensure they feel loved and supported. You should avoid using triggering words because they can cause your teen to shut you out. If their condition worsens, seeking professional help from facilities like Key Healthcare is important.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the risks associated with cutting?

The risks associated with cutting include the following:

  • Developing a compulsion/ habit
  • Excessive bleeding if the cut is too deep
  • Infection of wounds
  • Permanent scarring
  • Weakening of your extremities due to frequent cuts
  • Permanent tissue damage
  • Accidental death

Are there certain triggers that can lead a teen to start cutting?

Yes, triggers such as traumatic experiences from accidents, sexual assault, physical and emotional abuse, bullying, family conflict, and peer pressure can cause teens to begin cutting.

Can cutting be addictive?

Yes, cutting can be addictive. This is because it offers momentary relief through the release of endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that block pain receptors and induce a state of relaxation. Repeated cutting can cause an addiction to the feeling of calm and relaxation.

What if the alternative coping strategies don’t work for a particular teen?

If alternative coping mechanisms do not work, it is important to seek professional help from your General Practitioner, mental health expert, psychologist, and facilities like Key Healthcare.

How can parents and caregivers help prevent cutting in the first place?

You might be wondering how to help a teen to stop cutting. Parents can prevent cutting by fostering open communication and modeling good behavior by teaching teens healthy coping strategies instead of cutting. Teens can learn healthy coping mechanisms by observing how their parents or caregivers react to stressful situations. This can help them not get into cutting. Open communication also helps teens approach their parents or caregivers with any problem since they know they will be helped to resolve it.

What happens if you don’t get help for cutting?

Although cutting behavior may reduce as teens grow, if left untreated, cutting can have long-term effects like worsening mental health conditions, weakening of certain body parts, infection of wounds, permanent scarring, tissue damage, and accidental death.

Can cutting be a sign of mental illness?

Cutting has been associated with mental health conditions such as Teen Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, major depression, and Borderline Personality Disorder. Self-harm can indicate an underlying mental health condition.

Can medication help with cutting?

Currently, there is no FDA-approved medicine for self-harm. However, if cutting stems from underlying mental health conditions, treating these conditions with medication can help with cutting.

What role do friends and family play in helping a teen who cuts?

Family and friends play a crucial role in recovery from self-harm. They form the basic support structure needed for teens to recover. Through their love, compassion, and support, teens can develop healthier alternatives to cutting.