How to Talk to a Loved One Who Is Struggling

There are many reasons that you or the people in your life might be struggling. These could include physical, mental, social, occupational, and spiritual concerns. It can often be hard to know the “right” thing to say to a loved one who is facing these struggles.

This may be due to the individuals themselves:

  • Not knowing how to express what they’re experiencing or how to ask for needed support.
  • Being unaware of the impact their current behavior is having on those around them.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the issue, which is making it hard for them to reach out through their struggles.

It can feel frustrating and disheartening when you are witnessing the struggles but don’t know what to say or how you can help.

In the book,You Will Get Through This: A Mental Health First-Aid Kit, my co-authors Nicole Helverson PsyD, Charity O’Reilly LPC, and I provide things you may consider when speaking with a loved one if they are experiencing concerns such as social anxiety disorder, chronic pain, grief, and more. The following are some strategies you may consider.

Gus Moretta / Unsplash

Source: Gus Moretta / Unsplash

There are no “perfect” words

You do not have to figure out the “perfect” thing to say before you make an attempt to speak with a loved one. It can be helpful to share with your loved one that you will likely make mistakes. You can state that you may say things incorrectly and that your overall intent is really to be present and support them.

Let them know that you:

  • Are open to feedback.
  • Will use the terms they use.
  • Will respect their boundaries around when they would like to talk and when they don’t have the bandwidth to do so.

Make efforts to be mindful of how your words are being received by paying attention to your loved one’s body language and listen closely to how they are responding. Don’t try to push your agenda onto that person because you think it’s what they need.

As long as your loved one does not appear to be a danger to themselves or others, it’s important to respect their boundaries, so they know you are someone they can trust. Your loved one may not know what they need at the moment, but the most important thing is for you to meet them where they’re at and not to make them shut down because they feel overwhelmed or like they are a failure.

Don’t put all the pressure on your loved one to tell you what they need

When struggling, it sometimes takes a lot of energy just to get out of bed or have a conversation. The last thing that you would want to do is to add more pressure or feelings of shame on your loved one. Therefore, it can often be helpful for you to do some of the research on your own and to come to your loved one with some resources.

It’s critically important to also understand that they may not be ready to hear it and they may decline your support at that time.

Respect their boundaries.

If you offer to bring meals to someone and they decline, it doesn’t mean that you have failed. You have let them know that you are there to support them and that can make all the difference.

Don’t force your goodwill onto the other person when they have set a boundary. Remember that your goal is to support your loved one in meeting them where they are at. This doesn’t mean you have to enable unhealthy behavior. It’s also important for you to respect your own boundaries.

Sometimes neither of you will know the “right answer”

The most important thing you can do is to just be present and let your loved one know that you are there for them whenever they need you.

There are evidence-based treatments for many physical and mental health concerns. There are also resources at the community and national levels for many social needs. These resources may be helpful, but they also might not be the perfect answer and solve all of the problems.

It’s important to recognize that your loved one is a unique individual with their own intersectional identities and life experiences. They may benefit from utilizing available resources (e.g. Employee Assistance Program) or finding different resources that feel like a better fit for them (e.g. They also may utilize or re-utilize different resources in different ways overtime. There’s no one-size-fits-all and there’s no way of knowing what is going to be most helpful. It’s important to have a candid conversation with your loved one, while really listening and being receptive to what they’re saying. And support their exploration of what resources are available.

If you feel like your loved one is in crisis, it may be helpful to call for crisis support together. This way they can be aware of what is happening and hopefully share how they are feeling and their desires about next steps in their care, while you are there to offer support. In times of mental or emotional crisis in the U.S. you can call or send a text to 988. The national hotline should reroute to a crisis support center more local to you.

Overall, remember there are no perfect things to say. It’s important for you to respect your loved one’s and your own boundaries, while offering support and resources. And most of all, meet them where they are emotionally. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a struggling loved one is to just be present in their lives.

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