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How to Help a Teen Friend When She is Hurting Herself

If you promised to keep a friend's secret about self-harm - you need to break that promise. Read on to find out why...

Teenagers often promise to keep each other’s secrets. At times, these secrets can be about serious things. You may not understand what is involved in the secret, especially when you make the promise to keep it.

One example of this would be if the secret was that a friend was intentionally burning herself with a lighter. What would you do if you had been made to promise to not tell any parents or teachers about the scars. It's not an easy situation, especially when you don't really understand the problem.

Why People Self-Harm

There are different reasons why someone may be intentionally hurting themselves.

  • The most common reason, especially among teenagers, is that experiencing this type of physical pain is a way to deal with and temporarily experience something rather than emotional pain. In this sense the physical pain becomes a way to divert their attention away from what they are having problems dealing with emotionally.
  • Another reason can be to get attention and to control people in a relationship. People (especially friends) can express a lot of sympathy and attention, even if the whole situation is being kept secret. In this type of situation, making a friend concerned but not able to talk about it with others keeps that and possibly other friends attached and concerned.
  • In other cases, people will hurt themselves to try and "disfigure" themselves to become less attractive to protect themselves from certain types of attention, particularly if that attention has been associated with negative experiences.

The Possibility of Underlying Mental Health Conditions

There are also a number of underlying mental conditions that could be involved and you can't possibly try to diagnose these problems.

The bottom line, regardless of any promises made, is that that friend needs help. The best thing to do is help your friend get help from a qualified mental health professional in the community.

Your friend may be able to do this on their own. If they can’t, carefully look at the promise that was made. Can you use a loophole to reach out to other concerned adults (besides parents or teachers, in this case)  that you can turn to for help? In thinking about other adults to turn to, consider adults such as religious leaders, activity leaders, counselors, and school psychologists.

If there is no one else and the teenager sharing the secret is unwilling to seek help, you may need to tell them that this is serious enough that the promise can’t be honored. Dealing with their reaction is worth it to preserve their health and safety, and possibly their life.

And with help, both teenagers will be able to move towards a place where they can experience more peace and wholeness, individually and together.

LCAC, LMHC, LMFT
Pastoral Counselor/Therapist
Details of my broad experience is available on my website. I combine together being an ordained minister (trained at Yale and serving a church part-time in Harlem/Washington Heights currently) with background and credentials in mental health (licensed mental health counselor in New York and Indiana; licensed clinical addiction counselor in Indiana) to work with a client to find the best ways forward as they address their issues and move back to abundant life. throughout, the focus is on where the client is coming from.

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