A Call to Incarnational Ministry in the Face of Teen Self-Harm

I will never forget the first time a student told me they were self-harming; nor will I forget the second, third, or fourth time. There is something so paralyzing about looking into the face of brokenness and hurt, and longing for God’s redemption to break through.

It is tempting to panic or continually check on your student. It is tempting to let anxiety lay hold of your heart. It is tempting to respond too quickly, and, to be frank—say something stupid you’ll regret later. The purpose of this article is to encourage and consider biblical truths that call us to respond in love. It also bears noting that I am not a professional counselor. If you feel that your student is in imminent danger, you should always seek the help of a licensed medical professional or counselor. What follows are merely thoughts from my personal experiences with self-harm in youth ministry.

I was twenty years old when I first had a student tell me they were cutting. And that night, my rose-colored youth glasses were stripped from my face. I cried myself to sleep, believing the lies that I was ill-equipped to respond to this girl I loved so dearly.

When a student shares one of his or her deepest struggles with you it is imperative, first and foremost, to respond with the gospel of grace. Most students I have worked with cut because they long for an emotional release or a sense of control over their emotions. To put it simply, cutting feels good. Many have been self-harming for years, oftentimes choosing to cut in a place where no one can see. There are some who say cutting is merely a cry for attention; however, we would be wise to listen to the students themselves, acknowledging their story and recognizing their struggle as an integral part of that story.
So practically, how do we respond? This isn’t meant to be a step-by-step ‘how to’, but rather things to consider as you care for students who have their own story to be told. Whenever you’re caring for a person, you have to know the person’s story and recognize that it is a privilege to know their story.

1.Respond with grace and love. Unless you have been trained in counseling, you are probably not equipped to counsel a student struggling with self-harm. You are, however, fully equipped to love them and respond with grace and care. For many generations of adults, self-harm is a foreign concept, and students can often feel misunderstood, viewed as a problem by parents and adults in their lives. That is why we must remember that all people are created in the image of God and deserve respect and dignity (Genesis 1:27).

Instead of looking upon the struggles of our students with horrified faces, what if we respond with embrace, hoping we might remind them that he or she is a beloved child of God? Listen to their story without lecturing; validate their feelings, and remind them of the love their Father has for them. If you feel like you don’t know how to respond to your student in the moment, you don’t need to say much. You can always reflect and respond later. Don’t overdo it. Oftentimes, just listening in the moment is enough.

2. Personally seek Jesus. Too many times after a student told me they were cutting, I have gone into panic-mode, trying to take control of the situation and bring immediate healing to the student’s story. In the face of anxiety and uncertainty, however, we must look to our Father in Heaven, trusting him and his sovereignty in all things (Matthew 6: 26).

Yes, you are responsible for shepherding your students. Yes, you are responsible to love and care for them. No, you are not the author of their lives, and you do not have the sole power to help your student within yourself. God truly cares for your student and for you as you seek to care for them. Turn to Him first in prayer and the truth of His word, trusting that He is working all things for good (Romans 8:28). Pray He might help you discern what He is doing in your student’s life, and show you how you can walk alongside them in their struggle.

3. Seek support within your community of faith. One of the other lies I continually believed (out of pride) was that I needed to respond to my students all on my own. If your church has a counseling ministry, go and talk to a counselor to learn about appropriate ways to respond to struggling students. Seek counsel to see if you should involve your student’s parents. Be wise, and know that hearing their story is a privilege and thus, you should be mindful about who you share with and how. It is likely that you’re going to make a mistake, failing in love as you, a broken sinner, seek to care for another broken sinner. There is grace for you as well. Secondary traumatic stress is real—it’s the feeling you get when you listen to a first-hand trauma account and begin to feel overwhelmed and out of control.

As a co-laborer in the gospel, I commend you to daily remember that you, too, are a beloved son or daughter of our Father in Heaven. As much as you may feel like your student’s life is spiraling out of your control and that they urgently need a revelation in the gospel, you need the gospel just as much as they do. Remind yourself of the truth. Saturate yourself in its goodness. And seek the only true rest we can find as we press on toward Jesus.

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” -Philippians 3:12

Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever.

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.

Prior to pursuing her Master's in Counseling, Devan served for three years as a high school director in Bethesda, Maryland. As she worked with high school students, she loved and felt privileged to listen to students stories and seek to walk alongside them in their struggles and joys. Devan is passionate about building relationships and sharing life stories in community in order to provide spaces for people to be known and loved.

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