Apr 19

Intermountain moment: when a child engages in self-harm or other scary behaviors

Cutting. Self-harm. It is a phenomenon much more common (it seems) today than twenty-two years ago when I entered children’s and youth ministry. It’s certainly not uncommon behavior in the emotionally disturbed children that Intermountain works with. That’s why I felt it was important to share a little with you from a conversation I had with Joelle Johnson, formerly of Intermountain’s Community-based Services.

We agreed that whether it’s cutting, suicidal thoughts or an eating disorder, these “extreme” behaviors can send parents, youth leaders, and churches spinning to try and figure out the best way to address the needs being expressed. I’d like to share with you a few thoughts, and I hope you view the video in this post and share with others who might also need some direction or encouragement.



First, if your child or a child you are working with is engaged in self-harm, it’s important to realize that this is a form of communication. Sometimes the message is as simple as “I need control, and this is something I can control.” Cutting and self-harm is a way of expressing something that is difficult to express.

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” Romans 8:26

Second, it’s important to get help and to not shame the child for these behaviors. I often tell the groups I speak to that we ALL have coping mechanisms. While it may sound strange to you, self-harming behaviors are a coping mechanism! While some coping behaviors are more socially acceptable than others, the answer is to replacing an unhealthy behavior is find a healthy alternative. A licensed therapist or counselor would be an excellent resource for helping the self-harming child get at the root feelings that need to be expressed in a healthier way, AND identifying what a better alternative might be.

Lastly, think about the culture of the home, church, or youth group that this child is a part of. Has the expectation been set that a child can come with any issue and be unconditionally loved? Is authenticity and openness an expressed value that the child can see lived out by the adult role models around them? If so, it is much more likely that a child or teen will feel open, once they are ready, to share those difficult feelings and emotions that they once felt could only be controlled or expressed through self-harm.