5 Things You Should Know About Self Harm and 5 Things You Can Do About Self Harm by Ash Sanfilippo
When working with teens who self-harm, people often find themselves anywhere from mystified to intrigued to scared.
My hope here is to demystify self-harm a little bit, and in a subsequent post, I’ll give you some practical tips for helping students who struggle in this area.
1. SELF-HARM WORKS
Self-harm is a strategy people use to manage strong emotions or numbness. And for some, it works really well.
Teens who are prone to strong emotions often report a period of peace and clarity following a “cutting session.” On the other end of the spectrum, some struggle with unbearable numbness. Cutting helps them to feel alive again.
Since self-harm tends to work well to help teens feel better, they might not want to stop. They might feel like they’ve finally found an effective means of managing their feelings and be afraid to let it go.
As someone who’s never personally struggled with self-harm, that was hard for me to grasp at first. It can seem bizarre that taking a blade to your skin could change your emotional state in a positive way, but it can.
In order for us to effectively help teens work through this behavior, we must radically accept the fact that their actions make sense based on their beliefs and experiences. We must lay aside any disgust, disdain or disappointment we might be feeling and treat them with dignity and respect.
That is not to say that we affirm self-harm as good, godly or positive. But we affirm the teens in the midst of their struggle.
2. SELF-HARM ISN’T A SUICIDE ATTEMPT
Perhaps because wrist cutting has been referenced as a stereotypical method of a suicide for years, many have associated self-harm with a suicide attempt. It isn’t. In fact, it can be looked at as the opposite of a suicide attempt.
People who self-harm are looking for a way to live, while people who attempt suicide are looking for a way to escape living.
That isn’t to say that people who self-harm cannot be suicidal. But the action of harming themselves isn’t an attempt to take their lives.
3. SELF-HARM IS ADDICTIVE
If you’re trying to put self-harm in a category, put it closer to substance abuse than suicide. People who have been injuring themselves for a while can be addicted to the response their body has to the harm they inflict. And like with any addiction, there is a law of diminishing returns. This means they’ll have to inflict a greater level of harm in order to get the same response from their body.
If you have a teen who is in this place, take a deep breath, you might be in for a long journey. Overcoming any addiction comes with bouts of successes and failures, self-hatred and self-righteousness, ups and downs. Remember to not tie your identity to their success. Walk alongside them as they journey toward health, but don’t ride the rollercoaster with them.
4. SELF-HARM ISN’T AN IDENTITY
“I have a cutter in my youth group” is a nasty little phrase that we use all too often in youth ministry.
It’s a lie.
Our teens aren’t “cutters,” they’re humans made in God’s image. And if they’ve accepted Christ, they’re holy, perfect and blameless. Even in the very moment they’re harming themselves, they’re completely pure.
Teens soak up identifiers, hungry for labels. Let’s give them the labels God gives them and let the worldly ones fade away. The more a teen becomes immersed in the false identity of their harmful behavior, the harder it will be for them to change their course.
5. SELF-HARM ISN’T THE END OF THE WORLD
As youth ministers, there are certain things that can really affect how we view teens. Things like sexual experimentation, drug use, doubt, and cutting might tempt us to feel differently about certain kids.
Be encouraged, their behavior isn’t the end of the world. They’re young and sanctification takes time.
My prayer is that as you walk with teens on their journey, you are able to lead with empathy and love.
Many of us feel confused or conflicted when working with a student who injures themselves. We want to help but don’t know where to start.
Here, I want to give you 5 Things You Can Do About Self-Harm. They’re simple, practical steps you can take with your teens.
1. HELP THEM FEEL NORMAL
Self-harm usually brings upheaval and stress in a teen’s life. While many feel like injuring themselves is effective, it often causes them to believe they are weird and feel different from their peers.
And parents have a really hard time when their kid is turning to self-harm. It can cause instant stress on their relationship and conflict in the home. In a panic, parents might come down hard on a teen, trying to get them to stop.
As ministers, we need to affirm our teen. Talk through their reason for hurting themselves and the benefits they’re receiving from that action. Listen and believe what they say.
Say things like:
“It seems like cutting really calms you down when you’re upset. It makes sense that you’d want to keep doing it.”
“It makes me sad that you’re hurting yourself, but I know you’re doing it to try to feel better.”
You may be the only person in their life that takes the time to affirm them rather than just address their action.
You’ll get to the part where you help them with the behavior, but if you skip this step, you’ll run the risk or reinforcing the lies they believe about themselves. Affirmation also puts you on their team, where they’ll be more willing to accept your leadership moving forward.
2. HELP THEM SEE THEIR VALUE
Anyone who works with hurting people has seen the link between self-loathing and addiction. Self-hatred is so powerful and difficult that people need to stay in a state of numbness or distraction in order to cope. For some, self-harm is their addiction of choice to soothe these feelings about themselves.
To help avoid or overcome addiction, we should always be looking for ways to show teens their value and combat self-hatred. The key is to help teens separate their actions from their value.
The argument for self-hatred typically goes something like,
“I hate myself, because I’m not skinny/cool/smart/good/holy/funny/Christian/popular enough.”
The argument against self-hatred says,
“You may mess up. You may sin. You may fail by every worldly measure. But you’re not valuable because of what you do, you’re valuable because who you are. You are the beloved. You are a child of God. You are so valuable that God himself chose to die for you.”
3. HELP THEM TO NAME AND ACCEPT EMOTIONS
Whether it’s ridding themselves of strong emotions or finding feelings after a stretch of numbness, self-harm is primarily about emotional regulation.
As ministers, we must understand that emotions are part of God’s creation and are morally neutral in nature. God gave them to us as a gift. Could you image life without them?
Helping teens experience and appreciate their feelings—rather than avoid or run from them— will go a long way in their recovery. Feelings aren’t the problem, it’s trying to get rid of them that gets them in trouble.
Many young people have a hard time understanding what they’re feeling—they just know they don’t feel good and they want it to stop.
Through meaningful questions and grace-filled conversations, we can teach teens to name their feelings and some of the reasons those feelings might be occurring.
Sometimes, emotions are very hard to experience; it can be excruciating to allow them to run their course. They won’t get it right every time. They’ll cave in and harm themselves to find relief. But over time, they can learn to make it through without hurting themselves.
4. HELP THEM MAKE A DISTRESS TOLERANCE KIT
As teens are learning to allow their feelings to run their course, it is helpful for them to have a plan to get through it without turning to self-injury.
Accepting a feeling doesn’t mean they have to sit and meditate on it. On the contrary, Scripture tells us to meditate on good things, not bad (Phil. 4:8).
A great and fun way to equip your student for success is to help them create a distress tolerance kit. This is simply a box full of items that will help redirect your teen’s thinking when they’re tempted to self-injure.
The items in the box are completely up to the teen, but it’s helpful for them to choose at least one item that engages each sense (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing). This will help ground them and engage them more fully. It can also be helpful to choose items that pull teens into rational—rather than emotional—thinking. These items could be puzzles, nail polish, adult coloring books, etc.
Grabbing an old shoe box and heading to the dollar store to assemble the kit with your student is a great way to spend an afternoon.
Remember, the goal here is to equip them to tolerate the feelings, not get rid of them.
Check out THIS blog post where one person explains distress tolerance kits and shows us what she chose to put in hers.
5. HELP BUILD A TEAM
Every student needs a team of caring adults around them, and this is especially true for those struggling with self-harm.
If possible, I would recommend connecting your teen with a therapist. It would be best if you can find a therapist that practices Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) in your area. DBT is a targeted therapy that teaches people to mindfully manage their feelings without engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms. It has been proven to be very effective with self-harm.
Whenever possible, encourage your teen’s parents. This is hard for them and they’ll need some extra love. Most parents already have their child’s best interest in mind and want to be on their team. With your support and the right tools, they will be able to offer the care their son or daughter needs.
Walking alongside a teen who struggles with self-harm can be intense and exhausting. Building a team of adults will give you the opportunity to share the burden and the clarity to set reasonable boundaries.