I was at church one day when the Smith family (names are changed) approached me asking me to pray for them. Their daughter Vanessa had started cutting on herself. They were distraught, worried, and had no idea what to do. They could not understand how their daughter who was a leader at both school and at church could do such a thing. In their eyes, since she was not having trouble at school or church (other than a few common teen-age problems), they did not know what could bring her to hurt herself. In addition, they were concerned Vanessa was suicidal. After a careful assessment, suicide was determined to be a low risk factor.

Creative Commons image – Pamela Machado

This scenario is played out not only in schools and homes but also in many age groups in churches across America. There is a growing trend among teens who hurt themselves but do not want to die. Why are our kids hurting themselves? How do we support families when they have a teen who expresses this behavior? Since Christian counselors are not a part of every church how should church leaders respond to this trend?

Self-mutilation is an outward expression of an inner pain.

Why do teens begin to exhibit this?

  • they may not know how to express feelings such as anger, hurt, and depression
  • distraction from stress or painful life situations
  • to feel in control
  • if the teen often feels emotionally numb, this is a way to feel alive and momentarily cease the numbness
  • an overwhelming sense of guilt and that they deserve to be punished
  • feel angry but they avoid letting others know for fear of hurting them so the anger is taken out on themselves

Warning Signs

  • wearing long sleeves or long pants when it’s too warm to do so or a change from their usual clothing
  • consistently discovering scars or wounds
  • unusual or inconsistent explanations for injuries
  • consistently finding bloody clothing, linens, or tissues/paper towels
  • finding sharp items in their belongings regularly
  • alone, with the door shut in ones bathroom or bedroom for long periods of time
  • isolating/spending way too much time alone

The goal when talking with the child or family members is to uncover and resolve the root cause of the self-mutilation.  The goal is not to get the self-mutilation to stop.  When we focus on getting teens to stop hurting themselves, they feel unaccepted, judged, and unloved.  These feelings will drive the teen further into this unhealthy behavior.

When a teen is hurting themselves they are in need of professional counseling as soon as possible so that the root cause can be found and resolved. This is necessary and cannot be overstated. If you are a church leader and not a professional counselor, social worker, psychologist, etc., then it is beyond your scope of work.

As a church leader what is my scope of work?

  • pray for the parents and should the teen want it, him/her as well
  • encourage participating in a small group
  • intentionally spend time with the family as a means to communicate love and acceptance
  • listen, listen, listen
  • as the Holy Spirit guides offer words of encouragement or scripture verses

Love, acceptance, and resisting the urge to judge are the keys for both the teen and the family to get on the other side of the pain.

In the end, Vanessa’s parents took her to a trained professional counselor while they continued attending church, got involved in a small group, speaking to their pastor, and receiving prayer. Vanessa no longer self mutilates and when led, speaks of her story of healing.

Aimee has counseled clients and church leaders since 1993, and is available to consult with you on a wide variety of counseling topics. Please reach out to me at aimee (at) charisofarizona.com.