Self-Injury Part 3 – Recognizing the Signs

Disclaimer – I write “Leadership Moments” for the volunteers at my church who work in the youth ministry. Each Leadership Moment is meant to equip the everyday youth worker with the knowledge and skills they need to help teens as best as they can. Because these articles are for people I know personally and meant for my own church and city context, they may not always be relevant to the wider public. However I put them here for anyone who might benefit from their content.

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[This is part 3 of a series summarizing the book “Hope and Healing For Kids Who Cut” by Marv Penner.]

Because of the shame-inducing nature of self-injury, most people engaging in this activity try to hide it. It is a dark secret that they wish no one else to be in on. Because of this, it is important for those working with youth to be on the lookout for common signs that a teen is struggling with self-injury. It is our job to keep our eyes open and be attentive to the signs. We may very well be the only adults in their life who care enough to pay attention.

Marv lists the following as common signs of self-injury. Any one sign by itself may be a fluke, but repetitive signs or multiple signs together may be pointing to a bigger problem.

  • Scars, cuts, bruises, or burns. These marks can happen in innocent ways. We should not be too suspicious, but repeat marks on a teen or ones that have questionable excuses for can send up a red flag.
  • Long sleeves or pants in warm weather. Some teens dress this way to make a fashion statement. For others it is a convenient way to cover up their secret. We should keep an eye on a student who dresses this way when it doesn’t make sense to.
  • Multiple bracelets or bandanas. Again, this can be a simple matter of style, but it also makes a great way to cover up marks on the wrist.
  • Tangible evidence. This would include things like cutting objects (razors, knives, or virtually anything sharp), bloody tissues, lighters (for a non-smoking teen especially), or anti-septic ointment. If any of these are found in unusual places, such as a teens bedroom, bathroom, or on their person, it should be mentally noted.
  • Traces of blood on clothing. Some concealed wounds will seep through material. Most students are careful to make sure this doesn’t happen, but from time to time it does.
  • Rubbing the skin through clothing. When a cut is healing and scabbing over, it can get very itchy. If a student is rubbing an area on their body through their clothing like they are itchy, it could be from a self-inflicted injury.
  • Emotional roller coasters. This evidence is not physical but important nonetheless. Self-injurers are struggling emotionally, and it can manifest in ways other than in cutting. Depression, mood swings, general crankiness, or acting out can all be signs that a student is going through a difficult time.

It is important to reiterate that we should not be paranoid and feel that any one sign is evidence enough to assume the worst. As a general rule we should assume the best. But we should be careful not to stick our heads in the sand either. When any of these signs come up more than once, or if more than one shows up together, it is time to look into the matter more. Just how we can do that is the topic of a future post. For now, try and make a mental note of these signs and keep your eyes open for any warnings that could be right under your nose.

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