5 Things You Can Do About Self Harm
Just under the surface, under her smile, heavy eyeliner and glittering eyelids.
A feeling of complete emptiness.
An emotional flat line.
Maren sat down in her lime green Dodge Neon and put her McDonalds visor on the passenger seat.
Tomorrow was payday and she’d finally have enough money to buy her Warped Tour tickets. Smiling, she selected her favorite August Burns Red song and turned up the volume. She sang and danced as she drove home.
Even alone, she needed to keep a happy façade. The alternative was too scary.
Three minutes later, she intentionally drove past her street.
It was late and the house would be quiet. She knew she’d be alone with the numbness, so she kept driving.
Ten minutes later, she realized that the song had ended and she was lost in her thoughts.
She thought about her ex-boyfriend, remembering crying hysterically for an hour after he broke up with her. To help herself calm down, she had used a lighter to burn three small circles into her forearm. Now, she’d do anything to get those feelings back. To get any feelings back.
As she continued to drive, she zoned out again. With only emptiness inside, she had no anchor. She began to feel disconnected and adrift.
It was terrifying and uncomfortable.
Trying to snap out of it, she pulled into a parking lot and stopped the car.
A few seconds later, she was holding the flame from the lighter a half an inch under her left forearm.
Within seconds, she was back; grounded in her own body, able to feel again.
She smiled—a real smile—as she selected another song and thought about Warped Tour on her way home.
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.
In a previous post, I talked about 5 Things You Should Know About Self-Harm. If you haven’t read it, I recommend going back and taking a look. It sets a foundation for this post. 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.
Ash SanFilippo has done youth ministry from the streets of Chicago, to a small church on a secluded island, to the suburbs of Minneapolis. He currently works for TreeHouse, leading a team that creates online training content aimed at helping people minister to at-risk teens. Ash lives in Minneapolis with his wife and 1-year-old son. Check out TreeHouse at: TREEHOUSEYOUTH.ORG.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.