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  • Writer's pictureSarah Stowe, R-MHCI

Faith-Fueled Understanding: Unveiling the Depths of Self-Harm

Updated: Jan 12

Disclaimer: Yes, I am a Mental Health Professional, but I may not currently be your personal provider and this blog content does not create a provider-client relationship. This blog content is for educational purposes and should not be seen as medical advice. You should consult with your personal licensed mental health provider before you rely on this information.


On more than one occasion- I have sat across from a young teen with tears in their eyes, as they have shown me scars on their bodies that represent the internal pain that they could not find the words to outwardly express. Often, after some gentle prompting and empathetic listening, I find that there is a great deal of chaos in this young teen’s life, and the act of self-harm was one of the only ways they could find to cope with it. It is a way that they are seeking to find relief and calm in what is otherwise an extremely tumultuous time in their young lives.


Understanding NSSI: A Sensitive Revelation

 Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is defined by the Cornell Research Program on Self-injury and Recovery as “the deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue resulting in immediate damage, without suicidal intent and for purposes not culturally sanctioned.” Self-harm is largely misinterpreted to be the same as suicidal ideation or intent. And while self-harm is a risk factor for these two things, NSSI is meant to cause pain and not to end one’s life. While the reasons given for NSSI are oftentimes very diverse, frequently reported answers include depression, anxiety, relational stress, a sense of losing control in life circumstances, or lack of emotion at all. Many clients have reported using self-injury to cope with these symptoms to relieve mounting pressure in their lives, which is often related to relationships, academics, and other daily stressors.

 

Embrace Empathy, Banish Judgment

Upon discovery of NSSI, I have seen that many parent’s first response typically falls into one of two categories: panic or anger. While both reactions are understandable, they tend to create feelings of shame and guilt that prevent the teen from being able to share openly about their internal thoughts and feelings. While some individuals will share or disclose about self-harm behaviors openly, these behaviors are often discovered by happenstance resulting in the individual feeling caught off guard and extremely vulnerable. Because of this, we want to ensure that reactions and responses are full of empathy, understanding, and support. Caregivers will typically have many questions for the individual about the behavior- length of time behavior has been occurring, frequency, severity, etc. While this information is of value, we must be cautious not to allow the conversation to feel interrogatory and instead engage in gentle conversation, allowing the individual to share more openly and not shut down as they might be tempted to when faced with a barrage of intrusive questions. When communicating with teens and adolescents, it is imperative to intentionally approach difficult conversations from a place of curiosity rather than criticism, and compassion rather than condemnation.


To communicate with empathy and curiosity, first take your worries to God. Allow Him to comfort you so you may show that same comfort to your child. God comforts us in our suffering and afflictions so we may have the awareness of what it feels like to be comforted (2 Corinthians 1:4-5). It is extremely hard to see your child engaging in NSSI but remember you as a parent are an invaluable tool to help guide your child in the home and find professional help when needed. We are called to, as believers in Christ, to bear each other's burdens to fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). You as a parent may not be able to relate to what your child is going through, but use that freedom to serve your child with love as they navigate such a hard time (Galatians 5:13).

 

Initiating the Conversation: Opening the Door to Healing

Now for the question everyone wants answers to: what can I do to help? NSSI is oftentimes very complex in nature and likely will not be fixed by one intervention or step alone. However, the following list provides some simple steps that caregivers and parents can take to best support and assist upon discovery of NSSI behaviors and help teens to start their healing journey.

  • First and foremost, avoid reactions of shock or anger and aim to show support and compassion to the adolescent. Remaining calm will help the doors of communication to remain open which is crucial in crisis management. To help bear one another’s burdens we are called to do so in a spirit of gentleness with the aim to restore (Galatians 6:1).

  • Second, assess the severity of the injury. While many times the injury only needs minor first aid level care, there may be injuries that require more intensive care that can be received at a local urgent care or emergency room to ensure that infection does not occur.

  • Third, help to explore the deeper problem. Much like the ocean has vast depths beneath the surface of the water, there is so much more beneath the surface in our lives. Collaborating with individuals to discover what is contributing to these behaviors can help ensure they can connect with proper support and care.

  • Fourth, utilize local resources to find the best support for the individual. Therapy services, psychiatric services, and school counseling services are great first steps to help the individual find additional support and gain the skills necessary to best cope with daily stressors.

 

Conclusion

As with many things, proactive prevention is crucial. While not all teens will engage in NSSI, all of us will struggle with emotion and stress management and will endure difficult life circumstances. Ensuring that individuals have protective factors in their lives including a strong social support system, emotional regulation skills, and healthy coping skills at their disposal are great ways for parents and caregivers to help children and teens better manage daily stressors and be prepared when challenges come their way.

 

Resources for parents:

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