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Alternatives to Self Harm

Teen boy struggling with self harm sits against a brick wall with his head in his hands

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It is beyond frustrating and painful to watch our kids struggle to deal with overwhelming emotions. If your teens struggles with this like mine do, they may resort to scary coping behaviors that cause self harm, like cutting, burning, biting or piercing. While these can seem scary, and certainly can lead to far more dangerous outcomes, we gotta remember that in the end, self-harming is a coping method. And while we want them to learn healthy ways to manage their emotions, Lord knows, that process doesn’t happen overnight. So what do we do in the meantime? Are there alternatives to self harm that accomplish the same feeling without being so dangerous?

Yes, yes there are. And these alternatives can be great transitional coping strategies that give our teens the confidence to know that they can make positive changes to their lifestyle and behavior. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic, cold-turkey drop off a cliff. Which will help them in the future, for sure.

So if your wondering what kinds of coping methods can be good alternatives to cutting and other forms of self-harm, I’ve created this list:

The Rubber Band Method

Photo by Michael Walter on Unsplash

This alternative to cutting is so effective it’s been labeled a whole method, and is recommended by therapists and psychiatrists everywhere. Give your teen a rubber band, or even a few rubber bands – not soft ones like hair ties, but good, old-fashioned rubbery rubber bands, and have her wear them around her wrist.

Anytime she’s feeling the urge to self-harm, she can snap the rubber band against her wrist and get the same twinge of pain with the same amount of control as she would from cutting. It’s safer, with no need to worry about infection or serious accidental injury, it’s inconspicuous, and won’t leave scars. It’s also cheap. I bought this giant pack of multi-colored rubber bands on Amazon for less than $5.

Peeling Super Glue

You don’t have to use super glue for this to work actually; I’ve heard of others using regular Elmer’s glue, but for me, using super glue is more effective. Have your teen dab a bit of glue on his fingers. Or if your using Elmer’s, he could even rub it in the palms of his hands. Once it dries, he can peel it off. The Elmer’s isn’t painful, but it does seem to have a similar effect on the brain as other forms of self harm. Peeling super glue does give that twinge of pain, and seems to provide a distraction, almost like a fidget toy. It doesn’t have to be the fingers. Your teen can peel glue off their arms or anywhere they usually cut or burn, though it may be more painful.

Hair Waxing

Along the same lines as peeling glue is waxing. A hot wax kit like the one pictured runs about $35 on Amazon, and sometimes even comes with scented wax for aromatherapy. What I like about the waxing idea is that it can be worked into a spa day or alongside some other self-care activities that may help transition teens into healthier habits.

Waxing can give your teen that immediate gratification while allowing her to feel fresh, clean, healthy and more confident in her body, even days after. And it’s not just for girls. Guys can use facial waxing or even smaller strips on their arms or legs in place of cutting. If you’re uncomfortable with the waxing idea, show your teen how to tweeze!

Ice Cubes

Probably the easiest and most widely used alternative to self harm is ice. Whether they crunch it with their teeth throughout the day (watch those teeth though) or use an ice cube to “burn” a sensitive area of skin (like the belly or inner forearm), ice is a simple and effective tool in transitioning out of self-harming behaviors. I’ve also heard of teens filling the sink or a large cup with ice water sticking their hand in for as long as possible. In any case, it’s safe and seems to do the trick pretty well for many kids struggling with self-harming habits.

Muscle Rub

This is a great alternative that can be safe and even therapeutic for teens – especially those who are partial to burning or rug burn/Indian burning. The sensation from these products can be enough to distract your teen from using other forms of self harm or self injury. Rubbing Icy Hot or VapoRub creates a mild tingling or burning sensation similar, though less painful than, the after effects of burning.

Photo by Elsa Olofsson on Unsplash

Your teen may also be more open to using various hemp or CBD infused balms designed for pain relief and muscle relaxation. Or you can make your own super easily with essential oils!

Drawing or Marking Pretend Cuts

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Another effective alternative to self harm, is to draw lines in red pen or a sharp tipped marker where they would normally cut. Even with a regular pen, creating these marks still smarts just a little, and still gives the visual sensation of seeing the act and the lasting mark. I’ve also had luck using a temporary tattoo ink kit like this one from Inkbox as well as with a calligraphy pen, which is a bit sharper than your average ballpoint. With any luck, your teen will enjoy a bit of doodling instead of just drawing lines, which makes for a great transition activity!

The Cold Shower

Photo by Tim Wilson on Unsplash

Similar to the ice method, a great deterrent for self-harming behavior can be a blast of freezing cold water. Water has always been considered therapeutic for many people, and a long, hot shower is one of the most popular ways people use to relax, meditate, even channel psychic energy (if you’re into that kind of thing)! The shock of icy cold water is a great alternative to self injuring behaviors, and once their in that cold shower, 9 times outta 10, your teen will want to warm the water up and chill in the water for a minute or two. Which is really re-training her brain to recognize a shower as a coping method, which is exactly what we hope for! And if she loves the shock of the cold water and jumps right back out, no worries. She may enjoy the way her skin tingles after that rush of cold, and again, that’s still heading in the direction of self-care that we want.

Btw, this can also work with really hot showers too, but there is a higher risk of burns involved. Ultimately, if it helps your teen, she should go for it, as long as it’s safe!

Ripping Paper

Have old magazines or those things we used to use in the dark ages called…? Phones books? Yeah, those. Let your teen tear the pages out! Tearing up phone books is a great way for teens to vent pent up anger and frustration without self injuring. He can rip it up hulk style or slowly just tear each page methodically. The sight and sound of the paper tearing can give some of the same calming feelings he gets from cutting or piercing, and it’s a great way to relieve stress.

He can take it a step further and crumple up the torn pieces of paper into little balls and throw them at or in something – a basket, trash can, the wall, even his sister! Jk. Another distraction method is folding or making origami. Even just folding strips of paper back and forth to make little accordions can be a simple, therapeutic distraction to overwhelming emotions.

Blast Music

Photo by Elice Moore on Unsplash

This seems like a no brainer, but in a heated moment when your teen feels the urge to cut, music may be the furthest thing from her mind. There’s something about blasting music – the louder the better, that just seems to pop the top off all those bottled up emotions. And if you let yourself sing along, or scream along, and maybe even dance or jump up and down the bed – whatever, that’s just about as a healthy of a coping strategy as it gets!

Some parents get concerned that angry, violent or sad music can cause a teen to get stuck in those emotions. But research shows the opposite. If your teen is mirroring the feelings expressed in her music of choice, see it as a positive and encourage her to let herself feel those emotions. Remember, part of the reason she’s self harming is because she’s struggling to identify, feel, and regulate her emotions.

Hair Razoring or Plucking

I’m honestly not sure what to call this, but a friend of my daughters made this suggestion to her as former cutter herself. She told her to pull her hair on her arms of legs and use her cutting tool to cut the hair instead of her skin. While I would prefer she not have a knife or any other “sharpy” anywhere near her skin, it’s not a bad idea. For those of you moms who’ve tried all the tricks, tips and alternatives suggested by therapists and other well-meaning adults with no luck, try this approach by a real teen who successfully ditched her cutting habit. It may be the step in the right direction your teen needs.

If your a nervous nelly about the cutting tool like me, she could also try tweezing. Plucking those little arm hairs one at a time is definitley painful, and gives her a sort of methodical process to follow that should be a good distraction.

Bandaging or Taping

Putting band aides or medical tape over areas your teen normally self harms can be helpful. If the bandages are there, it may deter them from cutting, kind of like taping your nails to keep from biting them. What helped by son out quite a bit was using medical silicone tape. We actually got it for him to help heal the scars on his back from sever acne. He wrapped his arm with scars from cutting in it, hoping it would help those scars as well. This stuff is weird and feels very realistic, like real skin kind of. He said it not only made it easy to cover the scars when he would go to drama club and had to be in costume, but that when he felt the urge to cut, he would cut the silicone on his arm instead of slicing actual skin. He got the feeling of cutting without actually breaking skin, and the silicone tape did really help lighten the scars. Just know, silicone tape is not sterile like medical tape, so make sure if your teen uses it, he puts Neosporin or at least cleans any existing cuts first with alcohol or peroxide to avoid any bacteria growth.

Photo by Taisiia Stupak on Unsplash

This concept also works well with scar wax, which is used by make-up artists in theater and film to create gory (and very fake)wounds. These kits come with a clear or nude wax that goes on the skin and fake blood gel with brushes and/or a small spatula to create the effects. You can get these on Amazon here.

Sour or Spicy Foods

Creating an equally jolting sensation as pain can be a good alternative to self harm. One way to create this kind of strong sensation is with sour or spicy food. My son has a severe sensitivity to sound. One thing I’ve learned during multiple disasters with fire alarms is that cinnamon gum can help kids with sensory issues. It works by creating such a powerful sensation that it tricks the brain into focusing on it more than another painful sensation. Like ear piecing fire alarms. In the same way, creating a powerful taste sensation can also distract your teen from giving in to the urge to self injure.

Cinnamon gum is an easy fix that they can keep with them at all times. But fireballs, lemon drops, hot tamales or these Jalapeno lollipops work pretty well too! Spicy chips, like Takis work well too. Just beware that too many of those chips can cause serious stomach problems in kids and teens. If your teen eats meat, tough to chew snacks like jerky can also create that “chewy urge” (when your teeth have a weird ache to gnaw on a big ole piece of chewy steak). Plus, they can come in spicy flavors too!

If you’re like us and not really fans of meat or if your trying to avoid more sugar, have your teen try sucking on a lemon or lime wedge whenever they get the urge to cut. It’s about as sour as it gets!


Photo by Andres Perez on Unsplash

This is another obvious one, but it’s a good one that needs to be mentioned. Exercise releases powerful endorphins and creates neurological pathways in the brain that keep us feelin good vibes immediately and in the long term. The problem is, most teens look at exercise as a chore or a difficult task that they have to power through instead of buzz inducing activity leaves them feeling elated. And sure, some kids are competitive and sporty, making it a bit easier to channel all that teenage angst into adrenaline rushing combat and think quick in motion strategy. But a lot of kids aren’t, and getting those kids to enjoy physical activity can be challenging. I know because I have two of ’em! 😉 And if you are on that train too, my advice is, start small. A short walk to the coffee shop 2 or 3 mornings a week. A night of Just Dance on Xbox or, even better!

Ask your teen to teach you a TikTok dance and promise to let them record & post you both doing it (you can do it, don’t chicken out). Go to the pool at the rec center a couple nights a week or see if you bribe your teen to take the dog for a 10 minute run each night. Think small, get the endorphins rolling, and add to it when their ready. Again, exercise is one of the most powerful ways to enhance mood, stabilize emotions, and release those high vibe endorphins!

Find a Creative Outlet

Photo by russn_fckr on Unsplash

We’re all creative to some degree. And creating, beautifying, imagining, developing; these are not just a part of who we are; they are necessary actions for us to take in order to survive and thrive in this world! If your teens creativity is being blocked one way or another, help her find an outlet where she can unleash all that pent up emotion! It could be writing, drawing, singing, dancing, painting, doing hair or make-up, cooking, or photography; any of these activities allow your teen to channel all the emotion, energy, and creativity locked up inside her into something exciting. Encourage her to follow whatever lights her up. If she’s not sure what that is, nudge her to try new things. Let her lead the way, and see where it goes!

Hopefully this list will give you some good options to talk over and try with your teen. Every kid is different and not all of these alternatives to self harm will work for every teen. But it’s important to make sure our teens know it’s ok to feel all the crazy emotions they are dealing with, and that it’s ok to feel overwhelmed by those feelings and unsure how to manage them. By offering safer coping strategies, you’ll be helping your teen take the right steps toward healthy habits and coping behaviors in the future.

I hope this helps! Know of any other good alternative to self harm or if you have a suggestion that I may have missed? Please let me know so I can add it in! We’re all in this together!

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