The do and don’ts of checking in on a friend in need – CHOC

If a friend is going through a hard time, some families may have the tendency to want to quickly come to their rescue and help. Maybe you have a friend that is grieving the loss of a loved one; processing an unexpected medical diagnosis for themselves or their children; dealing with mental health challenges; or just feeling overwhelmed with the tasks of daily life.

No matter what your friend, child’s friend or family member is going through, there may be specific things that they do or don’t need. 

Here, CHOC’s mental health experts discuss some dos and don’ts for families to consider before offering help to a friend in need.

Don’t make a phone call, do send a text.  

If a family is struggling with a loss or hardship, whether it be the loss of a loved one or a diagnosis of a new physical or mental health issue, the pressure to accept various phone calls can be exhausting. Truth is, as they are processing, they might not know what to say or their situation might be too fresh and painful to talk about.  

Sending a text message is a better option than a phone call during a crisis. In your text message, try not to ask a question that needs a response from your friend. Instead of asking, “How are you holding up?” Say, “Thinking of you and hoping you’re doing OK. No need to reply.” And don’t expect to receive a prompt response in return.

Taking away the burden of having to respond can relieve some pressure for your friend. Then, when they are ready, they can text you back.

Don’t ask how you can help, do be specific.

You may be tempted to send your friend a text that says, “How can I help you?” However, this phrasing may put pressure on your friend to quickly figure out what they need, which might be overwhelming. This might be the first time they have really needed help, or they might have grown up with the mindset that they can handle everything that comes their way. If they are in distress, they might default to saying that they don’t need anything.

Instead, reach out to your friend with a specific task in mind. Maybe you can offer to pick up groceries, take their dog for a walk, babysit their kids or drop off a meal. You might even consider sending them a gift card for meal delivery or a card that lets them know you are thinking of them.

Don’t forget to think about how much you can handle when offering help. Don’t offer help that you can’t follow through with — that will be worse for both you and your friend.

Don’t assume that you know best, do let your friend take the lead. 

When trying to help someone, you may think you know what they need based on what you think you would need in a similar situation. If you are eager to help, consider taking a moment to stop and really consider what specific needs your friend may have. If you reach out with a way to help and they decline, don’t push them on it. Even if you feel upset or rejected, respecting your friend during this time is the best way to help.

Let your friend take the lead! It’s possible that they are receiving an outpouring of meals, cards and texts right after a loss or crisis. Consider waiting a couple of weeks once the wave of initial help dies down and reach out to your friend or family member again to see if their needs have changed.

Don’t expect your friend to reach out, do send happy memories.

If your friend or family member is going through a tough time, it might be hard on you and your family too. You might need to accept that they are not able to currently available to talk to or spend as much time with you as before.  

Instead, send your friend happy memories with them. If they just lost someone, share stories about that person. Or if they are struggling with their mental health, share a time that you both had fun together or something about them you are grateful for. This can help cheer your friend up and stay in contact without pressure.

Don’t rationalize their pain, do empathize with them. 

Something to stay away from is trying to rationalize your friend’s pain. You might find yourself saying, “It could be worse,” or “Everything will be fine.” Although well-intentioned, this kind of language can make your friend feel ashamed for expressing their pain and minimize their grief experience, and they might not want to be vulnerable with you in the future.

One thing you can do is share your friend’s burden. Just be there for them, and say, “I’m so sorry this happened.” Or, “We’ll get through this together.” As time passes, if you think your friend is ready for some encouragement, ease into talking about a brighter future. Let them know that there are resources that can help them and that they may start to feel some relief over time.

View other check-in tips from CHOC mental health experts.

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