Treatment for Cutting & Self-harm in Teens: Find Hope and Healing

Self-harm, particularly cutting, is a growing concern among teens and as a parent, it can be difficult to know how to help. For teenagers, it may seem like a way to cope with emotional pain, but the reality is that self-harm can have long-lasting and even dangerous consequences. The good news is that Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment has been shown to help teens overcome this destructive behavior. In this article, we'll explore what self-harm is, why people cut themself, and treatment options that have been shown to be effective in treating cutting and self-harm in teens.

Or you can take our assessment for teenage self-harm & cutting and see if a Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment program is right for your family.

What is Teenage Self-harm?

Self-harm in teens refers to the intentional and deliberate act of causing harm to one's own body as a way to cope with intense emotions, stress, or difficult life experiences. The most common forms of self-harm among teens include cutting, burning, and hitting oneself.

Although self-harm may provide temporary relief from emotional pain, it is a dangerous and potentially addictive behavior that can lead to serious health problems and long-term emotional damage. It is important for parents to be aware of the warning signs of self-harm and to seek professional help for teens who are struggling with this issue.

In This Article We’ll Discuss:
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    Signs Your Teen May Need Treatment for Cutting or Self-harm

    While it may be difficult to spot, knowing the warning signs of teenage cutting and self-harm is key in getting your child the help they need to overcome this destructive behavior.

    Warning signs of cutting and self-harm in teens can include:

    • Unexplained cuts, bruises, or burns, particularly on the arms, legs, or torso
    • Bloodstained or torn clothing or bedding
    • Sharp objects or razors hidden in the room or belongings
    • Avoiding activities that expose skin, such as wearing long sleeves in hot weather
    • Low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, or depression
    • Expressions of hopelessness or suicidal thoughts
    • Changes in mood, eating, or sleeping habits
    • Social withdrawal or isolation

    If a parent suspects that their teen is engaging in cutting or self-harm, it is important to seek professional help. Some signs that a teen may need treatment include:

    • Persistent self-harm behavior that is escalating in severity
    • Engaging in self-harm in spite of a desire or efforts to stop
    • Expressions of suicidal thoughts or desires
    • Complete inability to regulate or manage emotions or stress
    • Development of a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety

    It is important for parents to seek help from a mental health professional, such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist, who can provide a proper assessment and develop an effective treatment plan for their teen. Early intervention is key to preventing self-harm from becoming a chronic and harmful behavior.

    Types of Self-harm in Teens

    Also referred to as non-suicidal self-injury, self-harm in teens can take many different forms. Some of the more common types of self-harm include:

    • Cutting: This involves using a sharp object, such as a razor blade or scissors, to make shallow or deep cuts on the skin.
    • Burning: This involves using fire or a hot object, such as a lighter or cigarette, to burn the skin.
    • Hitting or bruising: This involves hitting oneself with a blunt object, such as a fist or a book, or intentionally bruising oneself through rough physical activities.
    • Carving or scratching: This involves using a sharp object to carve or scratch words or images into the skin.
    • Interference with wound healing: This involves picking at or reopening wounds after they have started to heal.
    • Hair pulling: This involves pulling out one's own hair, including eyebrows, eyelashes, or scalp hair.
    • Excessive scratching: This involves excessive or repetitive scratching of the skin, often until it bleeds.

    It is important to note that self-harm can take many different forms, and not all forms of self-harm may be immediately visible. Some teens may also engage in multiple forms of self-harm.

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    Why Do People Cut Themself?

    People who engage in self-harm, including cutting, may do so as a way to cope with intense emotions, stress, or difficult life experiences. Self-harm can serve as a means of releasing pent-up feelings or numbing emotional pain.

    In some cases, self-harm can be a symptom of underlying mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. For some individuals, self-harm may also be a way to feel a sense of control or to punish oneself for perceived mistakes or shortcomings.

    It is important to understand that self-harm is not a sign of weakness or a deliberate attempt to seek attention, but rather a serious and complex issue that requires professional help. If you or someone you know is engaging in self-harm, it is important to seek the help of a mental health professional who can provide a proper assessment and develop an effective treatment plan.

    The Connection Between Dopamine & Pain in the Teenage Brain

    The relationship between pleasure and pain in the brain is complex and not fully understood. However, some research suggests that there may be overlap between the neural pathways involved in processing pleasure and pain. For some people, self-harm, including cutting, can release endorphins, which are natural painkillers produced by the body. Endorphins can produce a sense of pleasure or euphoria, which may explain why some people find self-harm to be addictive.

    Additionally, self-harm may be associated with an increase in the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is involved in the brain's reward system. This release of dopamine can create a cycle of self-harm behavior as the individual seeks to repeat the pleasurable experience.

    It is important to note that not everyone who engages in self-harm experiences pleasure or addiction, and that self-harm can also have serious physical and psychological consequences.

    Importance of Early Intervention & Treatment for Cutting & Self-harm in Teens

    Early intervention is important in treating teenage cutting & self-harm because it can help address the underlying issues that contribute to these behaviors and prevent them from becoming ingrained and difficult to change. By addressing the behavior early, parents can help their teen develop healthy coping mechanisms, improve their self-esteem, and develop better communication skills, all of which can reduce the compulsion for to cut or self-harm.

    Early intervention and treatment for teenage cutting and self-harm is critical for several reasons:

    • Physical health: Self-harm can lead to serious physical injuries and infections, as well as scarring and disfigurement. Early intervention can help prevent these consequences and ensure that any physical injuries are properly treated.
    • Mental health: Self-harm is often a symptom of underlying mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. Early treatment can help address these underlying issues and prevent the development of more severe mental health problems.
    • Prevention of escalation: Self-harm can be a repetitive and addictive behavior, and without intervention, it may escalate over time. Early treatment can interrupt this cycle and prevent the risky behavior from becoming more severe.
    • Reduced risk of serious harm: When a teen engages in self-harm or cutting, there is always the possibility of unintended and severe physical harm, even if they are not suicidal. Early treatment helps lower this risk by educating teenagers on effective and safe ways to manage their emotions and stress.
    • Improved quality of life: Early treatment for self-harm can help individuals develop more effective coping mechanisms, improve their emotional well-being, and increase their overall quality of life.
    • Support: Early intervention can provide support to individuals and their families during difficult and challenging times. This can help improve family relationships, reduce stress, and increase resilience.

    It is important to seek help as soon as possible if you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm. Mental health professionals, such as therapists and psychiatrists, can provide a proper assessment and develop an effective treatment plan that may include therapy, medication, and other interventions.

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    Not Seeking Treatment Can Be Harmful

    Untreated teenage cutting and self-harm can have both short-term and long-term effects, both physically and mentally.

    Short-term effects of untreated grief may include:

    • Physical injury: Cutting and other forms of self-harm can cause serious physical injuries and infections, which can be painful and potentially life-threatening.
    • Emotional distress: Self-harm can increase anxiety and depression and make it more difficult for teens to cope with stress and emotions.
    • Isolation: Teens who engage in self-harm may feel ashamed or embarrassed, which can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

    Long-term effects of untreated grief can include:

    • Physical scarring: Self-harm can result in physical scarring and disfigurement, which can have a negative impact on self-esteem and body image.
    • Mental health problems: Self-harm can be a symptom of underlying mental health issues, and without treatment, these issues may become more severe over time.
    • Maladaptive Coping: Self-harm can be a repetitive and addictive behavior, and without intervention, it may escalate over time.
    • Social and interpersonal problems: Self-harm can strain relationships with friends and family, and limit opportunities for education and employment.

    Mental health professionals, such as therapists and psychiatrists, can provide a proper assessment and develop an effective treatment plan that may include therapy, medication, and other interventions.

    Early Intervention Is Important For Healing Your Teen & Family

    Early intervention refers to recognizing the warning signs of cutting and self-harm in teens and acting before it gets worse. When you realize that your teen is struggling, it’s important to get professional treatment before it becomes worse.

    Early intervention can help parents and families of self-harming teenagers in several specific ways, including:

    • Providing support and guidance: Early intervention can provide parents and families with the support and guidance they need to navigate the situation effectively. This can include information on effective communication strategies, coping skills, and resources available to help manage the situation.
    • Improving relationships: Early intervention can help improve relationships between parents, teenagers, and other family members. This can include teaching parents how to better understand and communicate with their teen while also improving the teenager's relationships with their peers and family members.
    • Reducing stress for the whole family: Early intervention can help reduce stress and anxiety for parents and other family members, as well as for the teenager themselves. By receiving support and guidance, families can feel more confident and better equipped to manage the situation effectively.
    • Preventing further harm: Early intervention can help prevent further harm to the teenager and the family. This can include addressing behavioral issues before they escalate and helping the teenager access the resources and support they need to overcome challenges.
    • Building resilience: Early intervention can help build resilience and coping skills in parents and family members, which can help them better manage stress and challenges in the future.
    • Improving overall well-being: Early intervention can help improve the overall well-being of everyone involved. By addressing teen cutting & self-harm early on, families can take an important step toward promoting positive mental health and well-being for all members of the household.

    Plus, it could help reduce long-term medical costs and the overall burden on family and friends. Overcoming self-harm in teens is possible with the right tools and treatment programs. You can help your teen get the support they need.

    Treatment for Cutting & Self-harm in Teens: What Are Your Options?

    There are several treatment options available to parents of teens struggling with cutting and self-harm, including:

    • Outpatient therapy: This type of therapy involves regular sessions with a mental health professional, typically once a week or more.
    • Day treatment: Day treatment programs provide intensive therapy and support for teens, but allow them to return home at night.
    • Inpatient treatment: Inpatient treatment involves hospitalization for a period of time, typically 1-2 weeks, and provides 24/7 supervision and care.
    • Residential treatment: Residential treatment programs provide round-the-clock care in a therapeutic and structured environment, typically lasting several months. ThreePeaks' residential treatment program combines traditional therapy with outdoor activities, such as hiking and camping, and can be a highly effective form of treatment for teens struggling with self-harm.

    The type of treatment that is most appropriate for a teen will depend on the severity of their symptoms, their underlying mental health conditions, and other factors. It is important to consult with a mental health professional to determine the best course of action.

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    Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment

    If your teenager is struggling with self-harm, ThreePeaks residential treatment program offers a specialized program tailored to their needs. Our short-term program combines evidence-based therapies with the healing power of nature, providing a holistic approach to addressing self-harm behaviors. Led by experienced therapists, our team is dedicated to delivering individualized care for each teen.

    During the program, your teenager will participate in activities such as hiking and camping, working alongside their therapist to overcome self-harm tendencies. The simplified setting allows them to disconnect from daily distractions and focus on their healing. The natural environment serves as a metaphor for their journey, helping them face challenges and apply healthier coping strategies to everyday life.

    One of the key benefits of our program is that it empowers teens to take ownership of their healing process and develop the skills necessary for long-term recovery. Our program is designed as a stepping stone towards lasting change, providing support for their healing journey without fostering ongoing dependence.

    We understand the weight of choosing the right treatment program for your teenager, and we are here to support you every step of the way. Our team is available to address any questions or provide additional information about our self-harm treatment program. With the right support, we believe your teenager can overcome self-harm behaviors and move forward to lead a happier and more fulfilling life. Contact us today to learn how we can help your family.

    Benefits of a Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment Program

    Being immersed in nature can have a profound impact on a teenager. It improves their mental, emotional, and physical health.  Combined with a proven clinical approach, our therapeutic experience helps teens overcome issues driving their cutting and self-harm behaviors.  Here are specific benefits your family can expect to see while your teen is in nature-based short-term residential treatment.

    The first stage of effective short-term residential treatment focuses on assessment and stabilization.

    1. Assessment 

    By observing your teen in a novel environment, our experienced therapists gain a deep understanding of what is really happening with your child. Research indicates accurate mental health assessments can lead to a 20% reduction in the number of days in treatment.

    2. Stabilization 

    Mental health stabilization provides a safe environment to deescalate your teen’s level of distress and/or reduce their acute symptoms of mental illness. Until teens feel genuinely safe, they cannot begin to heal. One therapeutic modality emphasizes that “Cues of safety are the treatment” and “safety is defined by feeling safe and not simply by the removal of threat.” It is not enough to merely tell a teen in crisis that they are mentally and emotionally safe, they must actually feel and believe it.

    Once your teen feels safe, our nature-based residential treatment program provides a novel and challenging environment that disrupts their unhealthy patterns and behaviors. Behaviors that either:

    • cause your teen's mental & emotional health struggles
    • or that your teen has developed as a negative way of coping with their struggles.

    The second stage of an effective residential treatment program focuses on engaging teens in the therapeutic process and empowering them with the skills needed to thrive.

    1. Engaging Teens in Therapy (even if they’ve been resistant to it before)

    The ThreePeaks Ascent treatment program is designed to re-engage teens in healthy adolescent development. When your teen attends a short-term residential program, they are taken away from negative distractions they may have at home. They engage in treatment in a way that would not be possible in any other setting.

    Your teen will participate in individual, group, and family therapy sessions while in treatment. This allows them to process their behavior as well as make changes in their personal life and family relationships. They are also able to learn from their peers, realize they are not alone in their struggles, and gain motivation to make changes.

    We've found that by the time of discharge, 90% of teens were actively engaged in treatment. When contacted six months after treatment, most of these teens maintained the motivational progress they made during treatment.

    2. Empowering Teens Through Skill Development

    As your teen engages in the therapeutic process, they’ll start to see huge progress. But for long-term healing, it is not enough to only alleviate your teen’s struggles, we must also empower them with the skills needed to thrive in life. These skills include:

    • Self-awareness skills like a growth mindset, identifying one's feelings, developing interests & sense of purpose
    • Self-management skills like emotional regulation, self-motivation, resilience, setting & achieving goals, planning & time management
    • Responsible decision-making skills like showing curiosity & open-mindedness, anticipating & evaluating the consequences of one’s actions, internal locus of control
    • Relationship skills like communicating effectively, seeking & offering support, resolving conflicts constructively
    • Social awareness skills like showing empathy & compassion for others, taking others’ perspective, recognizing strengths in others

    Your teen is powerful, intelligent, and capable. They are among the leaders of tomorrow. That is why the third stage of our short-term residential treatment program focuses on helping teens redirect their previously misused potential toward developing mastery in life.

    Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed years ago, “Happiness is the feeling that power is increasing—that resistance is being overcome.” When teens develop competence and mastery they:

    • gain self-reliance and self-confidence
    • become more resilient
    • have a greater sense of meaning and purpose
    • and better resist negative emotions.

    Overall, building mastery helps teens develop a positive mindset. Because they feel competent and in control, they go from feeling, “I’m not capable” to “I can do this!”

    About the Author

    Steven DeMille, Executive Director at ThreePeaks Ascent, a short-term residential treatment program for teens in crisis

    Steven DeMille, Ph.D. LCMHC


    Steven DeMille is the Executive Director of ThreePeaks Ascent. He is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. His educational experience includes an MA in Mental Health Counseling and a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision. His research focus is on Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment, nature, adolescent development, and counseling ethics. He is actively involved in the counseling and psychology profession and holds regional and national leadership positions. He publishes and presents on Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment and the use of the outdoors. This is done around the world at the national and international conference levels. 

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