Addictions, eating disorders, and self-harm, at the most basic level, are ways to express and cope with emotional pain. When we experience a physical injury or illness, people around us can usually see the evidence of our pain in the form of bleeding or a broken bone, for example, and that evidence compels them to come to our aid. Yet when we experience an emotional injury such as grief after the loss of a loved one or humiliation after being bullied, it’s hard for others to see our pain. And it’s hard for us to connect with the pain because we feel it, but can’t see it. Cutting skin, consuming alcohol or other drugs, and self-induced purging of food are ways to externalize inner pain and outwardly express that pain.

Because self-destructive behaviors are often an attempt to communicate pain to others and find some relief from that pain, we need to help our kids find healthier ways to communicate and relieve their inner hurts. These four steps will get you started:

Listen. Listening is the first step in communication. You can listen and really hear what your child is feeling when you

  • prepare a place to listen to your child that is free from all distractions,
  • ask your child to tell you exactly how he is feeling and assure him that there will be no negative consequences for his honest communication,
  • allow him to express his feelings with no interruption,
  • refrain from correcting any inaccurate information,
  • repeat back what you’ve heard without adding your own views,
  • write down what he says so you capture it all (if it helps you remember and focus),
  • put yourself in his shoes. Display genuine empathy and compassion for what’s happening in his life.

If your child appreciates touch, give her a hug or hold her. Sometimes kids just want to be held for a while with no words. They want the reassurance of your presence, much like we love to be reassured by the presence of our heavenly Father when things feel like they’re unraveling.

Share. Talk honestly with your child about your own experiences with emotional pain. Empathize with feeling alone and confused. Tell your child about times when you coped with your inner hurts in healthy and unhealthy ways. You don’t need to go into a lot of detail, but share the fact that your life has not always been perfect.

Make a menu of options. Work with your kids to develop a list of healthy activities they can do when they’re stressed or experiencing negative emotions. Offer suggestions such as journaling, drawing, or other forms of artistic expression; physical exercise activities; and singing or listening to music. Rather than stuffing their feelings until they come out in unhealthy ways, help your children find acceptable ways to put those emotions into nondamaging activities. Yes, you eventually want your kids to be able to verbalize their feelings. But in the meantime, find some options that don’t require conversation.

Seek support. Asking friends, family members, pastors, and healthcare professionals for support will aid in healing from self-destructive behaviors. Social support is important to provide a buffer between the child and the hurtful things in this world, and professional support is necessary to help your child learn to cope with pain in healthy ways. Because self-destructive behaviors can lead to death, your child will need professional medical and mental health help.