Mia grew angry when she found herself rejected by her stepdad and forced to live with her dad and his girlfriend’s son, a young man who had bullied her at school. After some months of counseling, Mia was able to verbalize, “I cut myself so I can show my mom how much I hate my stepfather and how much he’s hurt me. It makes me feel better when I cut, because it’s like the pain he’s left inside of me leaves my body when I bleed.”
While it seems counterintuitive, self-harm is an attempt to find relief from emotional distress. This explains why it’s labeled as a nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI.) Types of injury can include skin cutting, head banging or hitting, burning, drinking harmful substances or putting harmful items into body openings.
Even though the teen engaged in self-injury is not attempting suicide, self-injury can be addictive, cause serious damage and become life threatening. Therefore, if your teens are facing this issue or you’re caring for someone struggling, the first step would be to seek help from a licensed mental health professional. Once that journey is started, here are ideas to help teens face difficult feelings that may come up.
Feeling: Things are never going to get better.
Truth: God promises your children a future and a hope. He will help them through their current circumstances. Teens may not see it right now and don’t understand how He is working in their lives. However, encourage them to trust Him still, and wait on Him (Psalm 46:1, Psalm 27:14, Hebrews 12:1-3; Proverbs 23:18). Counselor suggestion: Have your teens think about past changes in their lives such as getting older and remind them change takes time. Help them understand it is OK to move as quickly or as slowly as they are comfortable.
Activity suggestions: Have teens write down negative statements they tell themselves on a regular basis that include the words never or always, such as, “Things are never going to get better” or “I always do the wrong thing.” Have your teens rewrite those statements in flexible terms such as, “Things could get better with hard work” or “Sometimes I make good decisions.” The idea is to recognize we rarely live life in the absolutes of “never” or “always,” and a good outcome is as likely as a bad outcome. Have them say the positive, flexible statements out loud whenever thinking the negative thoughts.
A good phrase: “This too shall pass.”
What to tell someone else: “I will be with you as you walk through this and wait for God’s healing.”
Feeling: I need to be punished.
Truth: When Jesus allowed himself to be beaten, mocked and nailed to a cross to die, He paid the price for any wrongs. He bled (so we don't have to) and gave grace, love and forgiveness. His perfect love casts out fear (1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 4:18). Counselor suggestion: Talk to your teens about how they would want a younger child who is distressed to handle his/her feelings. Would they recommend the child hurt his/her body to cope? Why are they different than that child?
Activity suggestions: Self-injury causes harm. Ask your teens to think of three things to do when they want to self-harm, such as journaling, talking to a friend or taking a vigorous walk or run. Start with just one new way of coping and practice it for a week. Add other new strategies down the road.
A good phrase: “I am not a bad person who deserves punishment. I am a hurting person who deserves to be understood.”
What to tell someone else: “You are valuable to me, and it scares me when you hurt yourself.”
Feeling: God has abandoned me.
Truth: Because God loves us, He promises to never leave or forsake us. Explain to your teens how his love is everlasting; it will never stop, disappear or grow cold. Nothing can separate us from His love — not even the teen. God will provide mercy and grace (Hebrews 4:16; 13:5; Ephesians 2:4-5; Romans 8:35-39).
Counselor suggestion: We tend to attach human characteristics to God; yet God’s character does not resemble ours. Feeling abandoned by people in life does not mean God will do the same. Ask your teens to research the character of God. Do they see examples of His faithfulness, even when others are not faithful? How does this relate to them?
Activity suggestions: Listen to the song “You Are More” by Tenth Avenue North or read the lyrics. What can be taken away from the song regarding God’s forgiveness and love?
A good phrase: “People may abandon me, but God never will.”
What to tell someone else: “I’ve learned even if I can’t feel God’s presence, it doesn’t mean He isn’t there.”
Feeling: I'll never be able to change.
Truth: When we came to Christ, He made us new. Remind your teens it takes time to renew our mind, body and spirit, but He has promised to change us no matter how we feel. He is reliable and faithful (John 15:15; 2 Corinthians 5:7; Philippians 1:6; Hebrews 10:23).
Counselor suggestion: Change is hard but possible if your teens are willing. Help them consider all of the things that will improve in life if they stop self-harming.
Activity suggestions: Teens also should consider what may get harder if they stop self-harming. Make plans for healthy ways to cope. For example, if they can’t cut to express the pain inside, perhaps they can express the internal pain through art, dance or talking with a trusted mentor or counselor.
A good phrase: “I have made good changes in the past. I can do it again.”
What to tell someone else: Point out and celebrate small, positive changes as they are made.
Feeling: I'm unlovable.
Truth: When Jesus died on the Cross, He demonstrated the ultimate act of love. God showed us the high value He puts on our lives when He paid the cost by giving the life of His one and only Son (Romans 5:6-11; John 3:16).
Counselor suggestion: Encourage your teens to ask a trusted friend or family member what he/she finds lovable about them. Help teens resist the urge to argue or disagree with the statements.
Activity suggestions: Then have your teens write down three personal strengths and put the list somewhere they can see it. Whenever they see the list, they should read it out loud. Try to do this three times or more a day.
Good phrase: “God loves me; therefore, I am lovable.”
What to tell someone else: “This is what I see in you that is lovable.”
Feeling: I feel like God won't forgive me.
Truth: Despite how teens see themselves, God sees us as blameless and holy because of what Christ did on the Cross. It's hard to imagine, but God has completely forgiven us. When we confess sin, He is more than willing to forgive and cleanse us, no matter how many mistakes we make (Colossians 1:22; Colossians 1:13-14; 1 John 1:9). Counselor suggestion: We often find it easy to forgive other people but so hard to forgive ourselves. How have your teens been able to forgive others in their lives? Can they apply those principles to forgiving themselves?
Activity suggestions: Have your teens write a letter to God asking for forgiveness. Based on what they know about God’s character, the teens should write a letter from God in response. Then share these letters with a trusted Christian mentor or counselor and ask him/her to be with your teens as they pray for forgiveness.
Good phrase: “God can help me forgive.”
What to tell someone else: Share an honest story of a sin you committed, your confession and how God forgave and healed you.
Remember, change takes time. However, remind your teens about the truth of what God says and show them how to seek professional help. Through this, they can discover better coping and life skills. Trust God for His good plan for your and their life.
Another resource for you
You may not know where to start to help teens who are suffering from depression, anxiety, bullying or suicidal thoughts. Whether it’s impacting them personally or something they are facing with their friends, there are resources that can help you guide them in the right conversations. Consider for example, Inside a Cutter’s Mind by Jerusha Clark.
There is help and hope for your teens. Through Alive to Thrive, a biblically based suicide prevention resource, you can help the teens in your life find the hope, healing and health that is found in Jesus Christ.
Joannie DeBrito is a mental health professional with over 30 years of experience working with individuals, couples, parents and families, and is the current director of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family.