When making a little list of some of the scary stuff youth workers deal with, self harm, a struggle more than a small number of teenagers wrestle with, was one I was hesitant to discuss; mostly because I’m no expert, and have limited first-hand experience walking alongside students who are on this scary path. So…I’m going to offer a few thoughts and hope that some of you will add to the conversation in the comments.
How do you help a teenager who is hurting him/herself?
Remember…The Problem Usually Isn’t The Problem
Self-harm is almost always a symptom of a larger struggle going on beneath the surface. Because of this, simply focusing on getting a teenager to stop harming himself isn’t enough. Helping a teenager identify, and seek help for, the larger issue is vital for spiritual, emotional, relational, AND physical well-being.
Your “Response Level” Should Mirror the “Harm Level”
Did the teenager just attempt suicide? Is she threatening to do so? Then a swift and full response is warranted. Is the teenager in a year-long battle with cutting? Then a slower, more engaging response may be warranted. Your engagement is needed once you are made aware of self-harm, but how you respond can (and should) be different in each case.
While there are some parts of the adolescent journey you may choose to keep from a student’s parents, self-harm IS NOT one of them! If you know a student is engaged in any form of self-harm, you will need to let her know that mom and dad need to know, too. One way to help a student inform mom and dad is to offer to be there with her when she does.
Know Your Limits…And They Are Many!
Unless you are a trained counselor, helping a teenager work through the issue(s) that are resulting in their self-harm is beyond your pay grade. You can, and should, walk alongside him as he gets the help he needs, but you probably aren’t the one to provide that help.
Help Mom and Dad, Too
Learning that their child is purposely harming themselves is a massive blow to parents. Denial, guilt or a desire for a quick-fix are all very likely responses. In your effort to help the teenager, don’t forget to offer as much support to mom and dad, too. While it’s not always the case, it is likely that many of the struggles causing self-harm are related to things happening within the family dynamic.
Few things are scarier than finding out that a student under our care is purposely harming himself. But Jesus has a way of doing his greatest work in the scariest of moments! Please add your thoughts to this important conversation.
Kurt / @kurtjohnston
Need resources to help you as you help teens struggling with deep-seeded hurts and habits? LIVE Journey to Freedom is an editable curriculum that will move ministry from being focused on behavior Band-Aids and cut through to the real issues going on for true healing in Jesus. Learn more.