September 2, 2022 5 Min Read
How Can I Support a Loved One Going Through a Tough Time?
Watching a loved one go through a difficult time is — well — difficult. When this happens, we often go into solution-mode, asking ourselves questions like: What should I do? What should I say? What should I not say? Plus, with all of the advice out there on mental health, it can be hard to cut through the noise and choose the best approach.
So, to help you navigate the uncertainty, we asked TaskHuman specialist and trauma-informed life coach, Reita Johnston, for tips on what to do, what to say, and generally — the best way to support a friend or family member who might be really going through it.
Q: First things first: how can I identify that a loved one is going through a hard time?
What a great question! There are a few things that can help identify when a loved one is going through a difficult time — practicing empathy, having emotional intelligence, and the level of connectedness in the relationship. It’s about knowing the person and being able to recognize when something feels off. For example, maybe they’re acting or speaking in a way that’s out of the norm for them. Being in tune with those subtle signs and energy shifts is helpful.
Q: What if I’m having trouble picking up on those subtle signs?
Sometimes, it’s just asking the really tough questions, like, “Hey, you’ve had a lot going on lately. Are you feeling depressed? Are you feeling lonely?” Trying to dig a bit deeper with more serious and direct questions can help get to the root of what’s going on.
Q: How can I ask these tough questions in a gentle way?
Let them know you’re asking from a place of genuine concern. This is also an instance where you want to take their preferences into account — if you’re talking to someone who doesn’t like a lot of touch, trying to put your arm around them and console them may not be the best way to start the conversation.
Q: How do I approach them if they haven’t come to me first?
Sometimes, people don’t know what they need help with. In those cases, you just want to make things easy for them. Asking questions like: “What can I bring you over for dinner?” or “Can I drop the kids off for you tomorrow at 11?” or “How about I pick up your dry cleaning today?” are all examples of things you can do to reduce additional stress.
When we’re in the midst of whatever it is that we’re in, sometimes we can’t think [clearly]. We don’t know what we need. We might not even know what we feel. So having someone that can just take things off our plate for us can be really helpful.
Q: How do I build trust with a friend or family member so they feel comfortable talking with me?
Brené Brown shared a metaphor about trust. She says that trust is like a glass jar — when you’re building trust, you’re adding marbles into the jar with every interaction and every word that comes out of your mouth. But, trust is also something where you can pick up that jar and shatter it in a second. So, it’s making sure you show that you care. When you’re sitting with a friend, are you paying attention to what they’re saying or are you checking your phone? Do you follow through with what you say you’re going to do? Do you ask about things going on in their life, or does it feel like a one-sided relationship? Trust is in your language and actions.
Q: What if they don’t want my help or advice?
It’s always good to ask someone if they want advice or if they want you to listen. If they just want you to listen, continue to be there and be present. Just knowing that someone is in our corner is a bigger help than we may realize. Continue to check in and be a part of their lives (however, not annoyingly). If (and when) they are ready, they’ll know that you’re there. They also may never be ready, and that’s okay, too.
Q: I definitely don’t want to be annoying — how often should I be checking in?
I think it depends on your relationship. If it’s someone you talk to every couple of months, check in on how they’re doing when you do talk. Again, it really depends on the dynamic of the relationship, so that could mean once a month, once a week, or every few days.
Q: How do I know when it’s time to encourage my loved one to seek professional help?
If it’s been a long, prolonged period where they don’t seem like they’re able to get out of whatever it is they’re in — it could be time to consider next steps. When they’re having a difficult time functioning, not seeking help, or not adequately supporting themselves, you may want to intervene and offer some support, suggestions, or tips.
Q: Is there any language I can use when they reach this point?
You want to approach it with curiosity, rather than telling someone what to do or telling them that they need help. Something like, “Have you talked with a therapist about that?” or “Do you have someone you can discuss this with?” You can also share a personal experience, like, “I went through the same thing and I found this book to be a great resource. Can I send it to you? Maybe you’ll find it really helpful.” It’s always reassuring to know that we’re not alone in these experiences.
Q: I’ve encouraged them to find support, and they want my help. How can I go about finding them a professional?
You first have to ask what help looks like. Do they want you to make the phone calls? Do they want you to send them the resources? Do they want you to just be in the room while they do it? Get super clear about what is actually being asked of you. Once you’re clear on that, you can get to work.
If they want resources, do a Google search to see what’s out in the community. Local non-profits, community organizations, and mental health facilities may have classes or resources available.
We hope our conversation helped to provide comfort and clarity in caring for others during challenging times. Remember, your well-being is always a priority, too. We encourage you to continue practicing self-care, and to dig deep, even when it’s hard. Coach Reita can work with you on exploring emotional intelligence, life purpose, life transitions, managing grief, isolation, or anything else concerning your well-being.
Note: TaskHuman is unable to help with medical diagnosis or clinical needs. If you are having suicidal thoughts and are in need of support, please reach out for help — click here for a list of resources.