Sex, drugs, and self-harm: Simple steps for helping teens make positive life choices

We would like to think that it’s rare for youth to harm themselves, but unfortunately it is a very common behaviour pattern in teens, and one that we don’t always know is happening. It can take many forms, from typical “self-harm,” to risky drinking, drugs, and sexual behaviour, to holding themselves back from reaching their potential in academics, sports or creative pursuits. All of these are forms of self-destructive cycles, and many teens will go through a version of this at some point in their growth. 

In order to support youth caught in these patterns, it is important to firstly understand where this behaviour comes from:

Ultimately it originates from a feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming emotions. 

When youth go through hard experiences that they don’t have the resources to cope with, it is normal for them to think that these experiences are their fault. 

While this thinking may not be logical, it is a reaction that happens for all of us when we are young, because our minds are not capable of understanding why painful events occur, so we conclude that they must relate to some fundamental flaw within US. 

This leads to two things - both of which contribute to self-destructive patterns in teens.

Firstly, the pain they are feeling turns into anger towards themselves, and there is an (often unconscious) desire to hurt themselves as a form of punishment.

And secondly, they are trying to find a way to ease the burden of this pain, without any understanding of where it is coming from, leaving them with limited options for change.

So they turn to the experience of PHYSICAL/OBVIOUS pain because at least for a moment this distraction can feel like a relief from the constant confusing emotional pain they are facing.

For instance, it’s common for youth to LIKE the feeling of being horribly hungover because it means there is a distraction from the dull aching of dissatisfaction and incompleteness that lurk under the surface when there are hard things in their life that they don’t know how to face.

So in order to support youth in changing patterns of self-destructive behaviour, we need to help them change the way they are SEEING their past experiences, and find more helpful ways of relating to their difficult feelings.

Here are some simple steps you can take that will help this tremendously:

  1. Empathise with their feelings.

    The most important relief for a teenager who is harming themselves is to feel heard, seen and valued. Saying things like “I’m so sorry you are feeling this way, it must be incredibly hard” will help them understand that their feelings matter and therefore THEY matter.

  2. Remind them that you care.

    You can say something like: “I’m really sad that you want to hurt yourself in this way, because I care about you so much and I really want you to be safe and taken care of.” This will help remind them of the truth that they are loveable when they are stuck in negative thoughts that are telling them otherwise.

  3. Tell them they are not responsible for others’ actions.

    For example, if they tell you about something hard that happened, you can say: “I’m so sorry you had to go through that, and I want you to remember that nothing anyone does is ever your fault. You deserve the absolute best in life, and if anyone is not treating you well it has nothing to do with who you are as a person or how worthy you are of love and respect, it has to do with their own pain.” Youth need to hear this regularly in order for it to really sink in.

  4. Don’t take it personally if they are upset with you.

    It can be so hard as a parent to hear that we have hurt our children, and it’s easy to get caught up in our own reactions, but if we can respond with empathy, this does wonders. We can say something like: “I’m so sorry to hear how that impacted you. Thanks so much for telling me. I never want to hurt you, and I will do my best to work on that in the future.” This shows them that you care and validates their feelings – even if their reaction seems silly or overdramatic, responding in this way will help them move through these feelings and reactions with ease.

  5. Help them see what THEY can do to help themselves.

    You can say: “That sounds really hard. What is one thing you can do that might make it easier for you?” Help them try different ideas and approaches. This reminds them that no matter what is happening TO them, they always have power and choice in how they RESPOND. Reinforce any action they take to help themselves, regardless of how big or small.

Any teen who is in a self-destructive behaviour pattern feels negatively about themselves on some level. Our ultimate goal is to help them see that there is no shame in having this negative self-image because it happens to all of us. And we also want to encourage them to see the power they have to help themselves.

The more you can help the teens in your life notice their own power, the more they will learn to claim it!

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