5 Dos + Don’ts For Offering Helpful Help


Helpful Help vs. Unhelpful Help: Not All Help Is Helpful


It’s hard to watch the people you love go through a difficult time. So when the worst happens, you step in and offer your support, only not all help is helpful. Some help and support, no matter how well intentioned, can actually be unhelpful. If you have a loved one going through a difficult time, make sure your help is helpful. Here’s 5 Dos and Don’ts to steer you in the right direction.

Do: Listen With Your Undivided Attention

Sometimes helpful help is being a good distraction

Sometimes helpful help is being a good distraction

When the people you love are hurt and upset, you’ll want to do what you can to help them to feel better. Listening won’t feel like it’s enough and you’ll be tempted to problem solve your loved one’s distress, but don’t under-estimate the power of listening. Having someone to talk to will often be all your loved one needs. Listen with a ‘fix it’ agenda and you might miss the point – your loved one is upset and they need to feel like you’re there for them. Show them you care by listening with your undivided attention.

Don’t: Assume – Ask Your Loved One What’s Helpful

Everyone is different which means what’s helpful to you isn’t necessarily helpful to your loved one. You might find practical help more helpful than emotional support, but practical help may not be what your loved one needs. Likewise, talking about what you’re going through might work for you, but your loved one might need time to think before they’re ready to talk. Don’t assume that your loved one wants the help that you’d find helpful, ask them what they need. Offer to listen if they need to talk, be a distraction if they need time out from their problem, or be helpful in a practical sense to lighten their load if they need it.

Do: Steer Clear of ‘Helpful’ Anecdotes

Hearing the struggles of a loved one will bring to mind experiences you’ve had yourself or similar experiences had by other people you know. You’ll be tempted to share your experiences, but think on it first. In most cases, it won’t be helpful for your loved one to hear about your friend who lost her father to cancer, or your cousin’s struggles with IVF. No two situations are the same and at the end of the day, what’s happening for other people is irrelevant to your loved one. Be there to listen and make your loved one your focus.

Don’t: Offer Up Advice

When your loved one comes to you for advice, understand why they’re coming to you. Are they seeking your advice or do they need an ear to listen? If it’s the latter, jumping in with advice isn’t helpful help. Your intentions may be well meaning, but your help isn’t the help your loved one is seeking. If your loved one has already made a decision or actioned a plan, your advice may also end up being more a source of frustration than a source of comfort. Know what your loved one is and isn’t seeking from you and unless you’re specifically asked, hold off on advice. Poorly timed advice can back fire in more ways than one.

Do: Mirror Your Loved One

Everyone processes things differently and at different rates. Some people need to talk through their fears, other people can’t tolerate talking about their fears and need to have a positive focus to get through a tough time. Read your loved one’s mood and be guided by that. When your loved one needs to talk about their fears and worries, let them. When they need to take a break from the negatives and focus on the positive, help them find the silver linings.

If you highlight possible catastrophes or argue against negatives with positives you may end up making your loved one feel frustrated and upset. It’s obviously not helpful to mirror extreme negativity or unrealistic positivity, so different rules apply where this is the case – you might need to validate your loved ones concerns and then gently help them to see the positives – but don’t be afraid to listen to your loved ones fears or let them take a break from the negatives for a while, doing so might help them to let go of some of their distress.

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Think Clinical Psychologists. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and adults, and specialises in anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and challenging behaviour.


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