Imagine you’re at a family gathering, and you see a cousin you haven’t caught up with in a while. You may notice something different about her, she may seem more reserved or tired. Perhaps she seems a bit one edge, even making a snarky comment or two.
Many of us only reluctantly open up about our fears and challenges. When we’re too prideful to come forward with our pain, we tend to show it in subtler ways.
When a family member avoids gatherings or calls, consider gently reaching out to them as a checkup. “By withdrawing, they are removing themselves from situations where they may be asked questions leading them to admit they could use a shoulder to lean on,” notes Helena Plater-Zyberk, co-founder of Supportiv. You can take this opportunity to let them know you’ve missed them, and that there’s no pressure at all to show strength, or to be in a certain mood – you just miss them. Even if nothing is wrong, they will certainly appreciate your concern.
Similarly, when a loved one seems snarky or uncharacteristically moody it may be a sign that they are going through something else. They may be trying to process certain emotions, and aren’t sure how to express it yet. Don’t take offense at seemingly cynical or snappy comments, and let them know that you’re open to talk to them if they feel compelled.
If you’ve recognized a loved one having a hard time, the first step is to reach out. Once the opportunity to talk arises, here are a few DOs, to help your loved one feel supported:
Expressing love for a relative in need, and engaging openly is always the best choice – rather than sharing strong opinions or judgement on their struggles. Since we all have our own problems, we can help most effectively by simply creating a space where our loved one’s feelings can be expressed and explored. The goal should be to empower them, so they can engage fully with their own situation, knowing you’ll be right there if it gets emotional or difficult. Remember, they may not believe in mental health, and it is not family’s place to force any label on them. Instead, shower them with empathy and hear what they have to say. Be an active listener!
Learning more about a loved one’s struggles helps you sympathize with what they’re going through. For example, you may have heard that a cousin lost a dear friend – before you see him, try reading about the grieving process. If you already know details, going into the situation, you can also search for resources and support groups that the family member may be open to hearing about. Remember that everyone works through struggles differently, and they may not yet be open to suggestions. While learning more about their experience will always help a loved one feel understood in their pain, allowing them to move at their own pace may be the most helpful action of all.
Often it’s hard to gauge what kind of help a family member needs. If you are unsure, you can always ask them! Some people appreciate space and distant support, while others feel better after a five-hour ranting session. Either way, clarify that you want to support them, even if their particular struggle may be out of your scope.
Lastly, remember that you are not personally responsible for the struggles of others. As your own individual with your own challenges and limitations, make sure to take care of your own mental health and understand your boundaries in helping others.