Whether you are a teen therapist, mentor or pastor or work with adolescents in another capacity, the issue of self-harm can be frightening and disturbing to both the helper and the teen. However, there are some things that you can do that can go a long way to help the adolescent resolve it. This article will provide the critical ones.

Overview: The term “self-harm” itself covers a number of troublesome behaviors that are directed toward oneself: cutting, scratching, hitting, bruising, biting, picking at skin and pulling out hair. Kids self-harm for different reasons:

Self-soothing. When a teen is under stress or pressure, he may not have the ability to calm himself down. The self-harm provides a release and a temporary sense of calmness.

Feeling real. Detached adolescents will have difficulty experiencing that they are in the world and exist as a real person. The acting out and the pain involved serves as a way to experience being real.

Mirroring. Self-harm can sometimes be a way to feel on the “outside” what the teen feels on the “inside.” That is, the pain mirrors the emotions that she cannot safely express to others.

Self-punishment. When a teen struggles with negative views of herself, the behavior “rights the wrong” by inflicting the pain as a just punishment for her supposedly guilty acts.

Cry for help. This occurs when the adolescent feels that she has no other way to let people know she is in trouble.

Ritualism. When the behavior has been going on a long time, it can take on a life of its own, and the teen will simply perform the action out of a habitual behavior, with no evident stressors.

Take it seriously. Do not look at self-harming behaviors as an attention-getting device. Most of the time, it is not. But even if that is so, the accidental slip of a razor can cause serious physical damage. If you become aware of self-harm, immediately talk to the teen about it, and do not dismiss it with her. Let her know that this is something you two must talk about, understand and work through. If the behavior increases or becomes a danger issue, you may need to refer her to a structured residential setting where she can receive intensive help. Compass Rose Academy is an excellent source of growth in these situations.

Empathize and bring reality. Kids who cut and burn often feel like freaks and are embarrassed by the behavior. Be the one who is “unshockable” and who moves toward the teen. Help her see that you are here for her and want her to feel safe. And help her see that there is a reason for the self-harm. It is not crazy behavior for its own sake. There is a reality that makes sense, and you will help her find it.

Get to the core. Speaking of that last sentence, use the list above to help the adolescent find out what the behavior means. It did not come from a vacuum, and it means something important. Use empathy, clarification, questioning and hypotheticals to help the teen find out what is driving the behavior.

Provide insight, a place for feelings and new habits. Change comes from the lights coming on, from having a safe relationship to feel and express painful emotions and from establishing new ways to live and connect. Be the person who helps your adolescent with these.

Though it can be disruptive, there is a lot you can do to help a teen with self-harm. Be proactive and guide her through the healing process.

This week’s blog post is by Dr. John Townsend. To learn more about Townsend, click here.