Mistake 1: Talking too much
This is the most common error when offering support, says Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. “People need to be listened to and feel heard, not to be told how they should feel or be given direct advice about how to solve their problems.”
Instead: Listen more than you speak.
You can do a great deal by simply letting people talk, Humphreys says. Nod your head, look them in the eye, put a hand on their shoulder. Repeat what they said back to them so they know you've heard them correctly. Sometimes they open up first, saying, “I'm finding this to be a hard time. I miss seeing friends and family, and it makes me feel sad and lonely.” This can give you permission to speak and to go into that same painful part of your own experience.
Mistake 2: Launching into “fix” mode
Added burden on caregivers
Sometimes the most important aspect of caregiving is the emotional side, says psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys. “There are so many conditions — pain, functional limitations, more serious diseases — that are made worse by poor mental health,” he adds. “Sometimes the best thing you can do is give someone assurance and attention that relieves anxiety and depression. And that will help them to manage the physical."
When someone does come to you because he or she is struggling, of course you want to help. But many people overact with “insight.” When we go into this mode, what we're unintentionally saying is, “Don't feel that way; do something to change it,” Kozlov says. Adds Humphreys: “I remember many occasions as a therapist when a woman would raise a problem that she was concerned about, and her husband, father or son would start offering suggestions for how to solve it, when all the woman wanted was to be listened to."
Instead: Ask permission to work together.
Usually, people already know what they should be doing to fix a problem. If someone is struggling with loneliness, making the recommendation to spend more time with friends, for example, isn't insightful and may just reinforce the problem. It's more helpful to ask permission to come up with more meaningful solutions, says Kozlov: “Do you want me to help you brainstorm about ways to improve the situation, or do you just need a shoulder to lean on right now?”
Bonnie J. Kin, director of the Applied Gerontology master's degree program at Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, says she will sometimes encourage behaviors that improve physical and emotional well-being, even if the person does not appear motivated to take action. The key is to offer two choices. People respond better when presented options rather than a single solution.
Mistake 3: Talking over the phone
When you ask a question over the phone and the person doesn't respond, you can't tell what's happening, Humphreys says. Are they struggling for words? Do they have a tear in their eye? Or are they just looking at the TV?
Instead: Get together, if you can do so safely, or at least talk on a video call.
You can read each other's nonverbal cues when you can see each other. That person can also see the concern in your face and feel your interest in talking.
If you can't set up a video call or chat with someone in person, try to get the help of someone else who is close to your loved one, such as a good friend or a professional at the assisted care facility. Fill that person in on the situation and see if he or she can offer some in-person emotional support.
Mistake 4: Trying to fill silence
Silence feels uncomfortable, which may lead you to respond too quickly.
Instead: Give space for contemplation.
Listening isn't the same as being passive, Humphreys says. Empathize with their feelings. Say, “You sound really sad. I hear you — it's scary.” Or you can paraphrase their own words: “You wake up in the morning and don't have any hope, feeling like nothing's going to happen. I hear you.” Strangely enough, that really does matter to people, Humphreys explains. “Filling silence with their own words is an effective intervention because it shows you care and heard what they said."
Mistake 5: Judging their reality
Saying things such as “you shouldn't feel that way” or “cheer up, things could be worse” or “look on the bright side” negates them as a person, Brenau University's Kin says.
Instead: Accept them where they are.
Validate their reality even if it isn't yours. “Their feelings are their feelings, and they are entitled to them no matter how morose or unrealistic you think they are,” Kin says. Depression and anxiety are quite normal during these pandemic times due to “interactional starvation,” she adds. Simply listening, then responding with “I agree—these are awful times, and I'll be glad when we can be out and about again” will let them know you empathize with how they feel.
When to Bring in a Professional
Sometimes a loved one may need more support than you can offer. Here are signs you may need to consult with a mental health professional.
- Disrupted sleep (staying in bed for 10 hours and still feeling tired, or waking up at 4 a.m. and not being able to fall back asleep)
- Lack of energy or motivation
- Loss of appetite
- Neglecting self-care (skipping brushing teeth or showering)
- Crying often
- Withdrawing or failing to engage when social opportunities are available
- Talking a lot about death and pain or making troubling statements about self-harm
Remember this, too: Ultimately, it's up to the person to get help. “There's not much point in running around and acquiring lots of information about treatments if the person is never going to go,” Stanford's Humphreys says. “You have to accept that you can't force them. They have to decide whether they're going to seek help or not.
Kelsey Ogletree is a freelance writer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, Real Simple and Shape.