For parents who have never struggled with the desire to injure themselves, this behavior increasingly common among teens can be frightening and confusing. However, telling your child simply to stop the behavior or criticizing them for doing it will probably only intensify the problem. At its root, there are beliefs and heart issues brought out by self-injury, and until or unless those are addressed, your child will not be freed from the impulse to self-injure.
What To Look For
Your teen might be experimenting with self-injury if she is spending large amounts of time alone and showing frequent signs of injury (cuts, burns, etc.), even if she gives somewhat plausible explanations for them. People resort to self-injury for a variety of reasons, but some of the most common include these:
• Anxiety or other forms of emotional distress
• Guilt (false or reasonable)
• Anger (toward oneself or others)
• Peer influence
Because there are such diverse reasons people resort to self-injury, the desired result can vary greatly, as well. For instance, those experiencing great emotional stress or anxiety may simply want to experience physical pain, in order to (if temporarily) distract themselves from the emotional pain.
Those overcome with guilt can feel a sense of atonement for their sins by punishing themselves in this way. (That issue makes shaming a self-injurer over their behavior potentially quite counter-productive.)
Many repress their anger until they take it out on themselves by cutting or otherwise injuring themselves, giving them a sense of relief from the angst built up inside; sometimes, this can lead to future suicide attempts. Peer influence can cause those who don’t naturally feel the impulse to self-injure to experiment with it.
How To Help
Clearly, self-injury is an unhealthy coping mechanism that must be addressed. Doing so can be difficult, since many self-injurers complete their injuries in private and often hide and deny their actions. However, if you suspect that your teen is engaging in this dangerous activity, you need to make sure she receives the help she needs. Medical intervention may be helpful, but at its root, the issue is tied to what a person thinks and believes to be true. For instance, the concept of self-atonement clearly contradicts 1 John 1:9 and other passages that describe God’s grace and Christ’s atoning sacrifice for us.
A biblical counselor may be better equipped to help your teen skillfully apply Scripture to the difficult emotions and impulses that lead her to self-injury. Instead, she can learn to go to God, even with the troubling emotions that lead to unhealthy impulses (Hebrews 4:16). She can even learn to thank God for the impulses themselves, as she realizes that they give her an opportunity to depend on God in a deeper way (2 Corinthians 12:10).
The journey away from self-injury and toward healthy, God-honoring coping mechanisms is not a simple or easy one, but it’s one that you can help your teen to navigate, or at least you can put her into contact with trained counselors who can.