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Hallelujah … I can make a fist. A fist! I can ball up my hand in defiance, triumph or (if need be) self-defense. And it feels good. You're probably thinking, Congratulations, can you also chew your own food? But wait, you don't understand.

You see, a while back I was playing football with some teenagers in my neighborhood when I broke my left ring finger. They splinted it at the ER, after which I was surprisingly comfortable—so long as I didn't try to bend it. Ten days later I visited a hand specialist who forced me to flex my fractured appendage as far as it would go. Ouch! Nothing doing.

"When I see you in three weeks," the doctor said, "you need to be able to make a fist." Yeah, right, and Eminem's next CD will win a Dove Award. Were we talking about the same hand? Then he really rocked my world; he took away my splint! My shield. My guard against flexion. The protective exoskeleton that cradled my wounded digit in tenuous comfort. Just as I was thinking a second opinion might be in order, he started binding my banged-up finger to its healthy neighbor with what he called "buddy tape." This, he noted, would protect it and encourage motion.

Encourage motion?

"But moving it really hurts," I reminded him, hoping he might have a plan B for writers with a low pain threshold.

"If you don't start flexing it now," he explained, "it'll never move properly again. You'll have some pain. That's normal. But you have to do it."

Well, it turns out he was right. It wasn't a pleasant journey, but I can make a fist again. It occurred to me that helping hurting teenagers overcome trials and develop godly character has a lot in common with that experience.

When young people are hurting, it's natural for them to withdraw. Bullying. Body image. Divorce. Peer pressure. Sexual confusion. Those are just a few of the struggles that can leave teens reaching for an emotional splint to protect the wounded area. Perhaps your adolescent has made mistakes or suffered from someone else's poor choices. You don't need a doctor to tell you that something inside is broken. The symptoms are obvious. And since you're no more likely to cut off your child than I was to cut off my finger, the alternative is to monitor the injury and pray for healing.

Even so, don't just put a splint on it. It's tempting to make hurting teens as comfortable as possible, but that may not be the healthiest solution. They need our support (relational "buddy tape"). They also need us, with proper guidance, to challenge them to bend in the right direction (therapeutically flexing and exercising the wounded part, even if it stings a little). What will happen if adults don't come alongside teens and apply appropriate pressure to the afflicted area? The same thing that would've occurred had I simply splinted my finger and refused to flex it or tape it to a healthy partner: The swelling and pain might've subsided over time, but it would have healed improperly and plagued me for years.

Depending on how badly your teen is hurting, you may need additional help. Go for it. Don't let anxiety or pride keep you from pursuing more information or professional counseling. Bend. Flex. Pray. Do what it takes to make progress … together. Scour God's word. Talk to your pastor. If you haven't done so already, visit troubledwith.com, a website of Focus on the Family with links to articles about all sorts of challenges. If you need more wisdom or a personal touch, we also have licensed counselors to answer questions or connect you with someone closer to home (800-232-6459).

Doctoring brokenness in young people can take time. I wish it were always as easy as a hug and a plate of warm cookies. Teenagers are so complex. They often have a difficult time explaining what hurts. They may even resist your help. Nevertheless, to quote my orthopedist, "You'll have some pain. That's normal. But you have to do it."

Published March 2006