It can be really hard seeing someone having a hard time. You want to do the right thing but what’s the best way you can support someone?
Life can be hard and sometimes we all need a bit of support. Having someone when things are difficult can be great and it can be really good for us to be there for someone else. But how to do it? What’s the most important thing about supporting someone? Is it always a good idea? When should we stop?
Do they want support? If so, what?
Before stepping in with your size 9s to give someone support, think for a minute about what kind of support they might want. Different people want different kinds of support depending on what it is that is happening for them.
Sometimes people want your killer advice, your coaching or cheerleading. Sometimes people just want to talk about how they are feeling – so they just want you to listen hard, nod and lean your head sympathetically. Sometimes people want you to put on your silly hot dog outfit to cheer them up.
Sometimes people don’t want to talk but want someone to help them take care of their physical needs – to be fed, watered, stroked, hugged or washed. Sometimes people just want you to give them space so they can work something out for themselves. Sometimes people might want a bit of all of these things, or something else. Sometimes people might not know what they want.
The most important thing for you to do in this case is to pay really close attention to what they need. If they aren’t really engaging with your advice maybe they just want to be listened.
If they aren’t saying much, maybe they just want to sit with you. Let them know that they have options including you not being around if that is going to help them.
If you’re getting support, it’s okay for you to say what you want too. “I really appreciate your advice, but I’d just like a hug right now.” “Can you give me some advice on what to do, I’m stuck.”
Be On Their Side
If you’re offering someone support the most important thing is to let them know that you are on their team. You support them. You believe them. You’re there with them. You might not be able to help them to make their difficult feelings go away (more on this below) but you can sit with them, put your hand on their shoulder (like, metaphorically innit) and say ‘I got you.’
An important part of this is about really trying to get into their head. Really show that you believe them, that you can see how life is difficult for them right now, and to show that you care. If someone is trusting you enough to tell you what is difficult for them, it isn’t going to help them if you say things like “really? Are you sure that’s what’s happening?” or “how can you feel like that?”
Really show that you believe them, that you can see how life is difficult for them right now, and to show that you care.
Their shitty inner self-critic is probably already saying these things to them anyway, don’t give the little shit any more ammunition. Don’t tell them that their feelings aren’t real and don’t tell them what they should be thinking. Now is just the time to nod, be in their space and say things like “wow, this is really tough for you” or “I’m not surprised you’re feeling this way, that’s hard.”
There may be times when you can see that someone is doing something that is in someway not helping them. Like, who they keep hanging out with or what they keep doing. Because you have a bit of distance you might be able to see something that they can’t see. Sometimes this might be a thing they don’t want to hear, or something a bit challenging. This might be really valuable or useful advice – but ask before you give it and don’t just give it anyway. If you do give advice, be super gentle and make it clear that you are on their team.
Know when to stop
Pssst. You’re not a trained therapist. Even if you were you wouldn’t be allowed to take someone you know as a client. You can do a lot, but you can’t stop someone from feeling bad – no matter how hard that is to deal with. Sorry.
Sure for the time being you might be doing a bit more friending than they can give to you. But if your relationship (friends, partners, family, team mate) is healthy enough has enough give and take they might be able to support you more in the future. However, you are not under an obligation to give them 24/7 support. Even in times when they need your support there are going to be things that you are able to do and things you are not able to do.
You need to draw the line and make it clear about how much you are going to support them. How much time you can give them, what level of support, the kind of support. That sounds harsh right? Actually it’s not.
You don’t have limitless resources – you have your own life, other people who need you and other people you need. If you keep giving and giving and giving eventually you’ll have nothing left to give.
If you were to say to someone that ‘you will always be there for them’ you wouldn’t be telling them the truth – that’s not going to help them or you.
If you feel that you aren’t able to give the kind of support that your friend needs you can ask them about whether you can get other people in to help. They might have opened up to you about whatever but have they told other friends or family what’s going on? Can you help them to tell more people – so that they feel like they have a whole team there for them? They may also want some professional support too.
Where to Get Help
People need different kinds of help depending on their problem. Schools, colleges, universities and youth services (where they still exist) usually have people that can offer support – like a counsellor, school nurse, pastoral team, that kind of thing. They can be good to talk to in the first place but they can also offer support in the long run. Young people’s clinics can sometimes offer counselling, someone to talk to or can find you someone to talk to. These places can all help you to help someone too if you are worried about them or you are needing support too. (More on how to look after yourself here)
Some helplines and other places to go:
Childline is a great place to get some support for under 19s
Young Minds is a cracking website for young people wanting support with their mental health
Samaritans is a great place for anyone who really needs/wants to talk
CALM is great for dudes, cos dudes are often not great at asking for emotional help (cos dudes are meant to be strong right? Wrong.)
LGBT+ switchboard can help folks who are LGBT+ (clue is in the title)
National Domestic Violence Helpline for women and children
Sexual Assault Referral Centres for people who want support with or who want to report a sexual assault
Scarleteen is a really great sex and relationships advice site like Bish, but also has live chat support and moderated message boards (we don’t have the funding for that at Bish *sad face*)
Other articles you might like
This is a really great article by the awesome Kate McCombs about how to support someone
This by the awesome Petra Boynton is a really comprehensive list of services that can help
Other Bish articles that you might like
Self-Care – how to take care of yourself if this is all a bit much
How we feel about ourselves – maybe if they are being hard on themselves this might help?
Abusive relationships – how to help a friend see if they are one
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© Justin Hancock, 2023
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.