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How to Address Your Friend’s Self-Destructive Behavior


We all face challenges in life. Difficult times and challenging circumstances can evoke a variety of behaviors in people. Some individuals' reactions to difficult circumstances turn to destructive behavior such as self-harm, engaging in addictions, and seeking out sexual gratification through unhealthy avenues. Many of us have friends or are leaders of individuals who struggle with self-destructive behavior. Supporting and encouraging someone to seek out a therapist is a helpful option, but understanding how to help the person and not enable the behavior is also essential.

Open the Topic

As a friend, family member, or leader, it can be helpful to have a foundation of conversational strategies to use when you are in a conversation with someone struggling. When starting the conversation, it is essential to look for openings to begin a dialogue and to ask permission and communicate your intentions as you share your concerns. It is critical to listen and validate what the person is sharing as they increase their vulnerability with you.

Throughout the Conversation

During the conversation, three general rules of thumb to remember are to 1) know why you are bringing up your concerns, 2) come from a place of sincerity, and 3) start at a slow pace, paying close attention to how the other person is responding.

Once the conversation begins, it is essential to remember to focus on the problematic behavior and use "I" versus "you" or "we." Instead of saying, "you are doing..." say, "I am concerned because I have seen..." This decreases the feelings of shame and focuses the conversation on your concerns about the behavior instead of the action itself. It may also help to avoid language such as "we are concerned..." and instead stick to phrases such as "I am concerned..." Using "I" helps the other person not to feel ganged up and can decrease their defensiveness.

Trying to help someone who engages in self-destructive behavior can be intimidating, but the critical thing to remember is not to disregard it or assume you are not equipped enough to speak up. There is no perfect way to start this conversation, remember to be sincere, listen compassionately, and avoid phrases that could increase defensiveness in the process. Ultimately it is about communicating care and offering your support. That alone has the power to influence and help someone move out of destructive patterns.

Learn more about how to guide young adults through friendships using the Intentionally Friends module from the Relationship IQ Curriculum.