Self-Injury Part 4 – Why Do Kids Self-Injure?

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 4 of a series summarizing the book “Hope and Healing For Kids Who Cut” by Marv Penner.]

Self-injury tends to puzzle those from the outside looking in. “Why in the world would you do that to yourself?” one might wonder. It’s a valid question, and one that we need to have an answer to in order to help those who struggle with this issue. What is the motive behind this behaviour?

The simplest way to answer the question is to say that self-injurers do what they do to feel better. The physical pain they intentionally inflict on themselves is way to manage the emotional pain they struggle with. Everyone has emotional pain they must deal with, and this pain comes from various things. Usually it stems from negative past experiences. A parent walking out, sexual abuse, bullying, the loss of a loved one, regrets for past mistakes….any of these and more can cause a person to have emotional baggage to carry. Then, what happens is that when a person hits their teen years, they are confronted with the question “Who am I?” A teen struggling with this question might allow their negative experiences and negative emotions to answer that question for them. The result is many young people answer the “Who am I?” question with responses like “I am worthless. I am a loser. I am no good. I am stupid. I am unloved.”

Young people (and older people for that matter) will handle that kind of negative self-image a variety of ways. Some rise up and overcome. Some put up a false front. Some turn to drugs, sex, or popularity. In the end, some will turn to self-injury. And just like any of the other alternatives, it works…at least, for a little while (more on the addictive nature of self-injury next time).

Self-injury helps young people cope by distracting them from the emotional pain they feel. For that brief moment of self-injury, the emotional pain goes away. Only physical pain is present, and to someone who is really hurting, that is a trade worth making.

Penner highlights what he calls “unchallenged assumptions” in the book. An unchallenged assumption is the way a teen thinks of themselves that no one has bothered to counter. So, the teens who carry a negative self-identity become even more convinced of who they are because no one else is saying otherwise. They simply assume that what they feel is true. This means, for example, that someone who thinks “I am unloved” will soon believe “I am unlovable”. The first is a momentary feeling while the second is a lasting identity.

In order to reverse the trend of self-injury, we leaders need to combat the unchallenged assumptions with truth and encouragement rooted in the Word of God. We need to be the ones to help young people discover a life-giving identity; it’s possible that no other person in their life will. As those called to serve young people, we need to help them see what their identity in Christ is – that they are loved, they have hope, they have a purpose, they are valuable, they are beautiful, they are forgiven, they can have a new beginning, they are part of God’s family.

In understanding the “why”, we can give better help to those struggling with self-injury. Knowing about their pain and their negative self-identities, forged by years of unchallenged assumptions, we are better equipped to know what we are dealing with. And, over time, we will see God’s grace and love move in their hearts as they begin to see themselves the way Christ sees them.

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