We all go through difficult times in our lives at some point or another. It’s likely that you will have a friend who is struggling and will need your help to get through that tough time. Sometimes it can be difficult to know what to say or do in these situations, and it’s easy to worry that you might say the wrong thing. But as a friend, it’s very important to be there to provide support to those you care about.
What is a Crisis?
According to Google, a crisis is defined as “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.” Synonyms: emergency, disaster, catastrophe, calamity.
So what does this look like? It can vary widely from person to person and could range from getting a bad grade on an exam to the death of a loved one. It could be health issues, a bad break-up, abuse, a family member with cancer, academic probation, parents getting divorced, an eating disorder, and the list goes on and on.
Signs That Someone is Going Through a Tough Time
One of the most common signs that your friend is in a time of crisis is a clear and abrupt change in behavior. However, it can also happen gradually over time. Some examples include:
- Neglect of personal hygiene
- Dramatic change in sleeping habits (sleeping more often or not sleeping well)
- Weight gain or loss
- Decline in performance at work or school
- Pronounced changes in mood, such as irritability, anger, anxiety or sadness
- Withdrawal from routine activities and relationships
- Self injurious behavior (drugs, excessive alcohol use, sex, etc.)
- Excessive worry, anxiety or panic
- Difficulty making decisions
- Going home more often or avoiding home more
What Happens During a Crisis?
When your friend is struggling with a situation, it’s normal for these things to happen:
- Loss of perspective
- Feelings about the situation overpower the facts
- Decrease in critical thinking skills
- Grief over what is lost in situation
- Too pained to look ahead to the future
- Loss of hope
That’s why, if action is required for their specific situation, it can be hard for your friend to make a decision in the midst of a difficult time.
For that reason, sometimes your friend may confide in you about the tough time they’re experiencing. If that is the case, that’s a huge privilege! They trust you to support them and may want your input on making a decision.
But other times your friend may withdraw and you may notice some of the signs listed above. As a friend, it’s important that you reach out to them if you notice these things, even if they don’t come to you about it.
Reaching out can be as simple as saying, “Let’s talk. You don’t seem like yourself lately. Is there something going on?”
Whether your friend confides in you about their difficulty or if you are reaching out to them, here are six practical steps you can take to help them in their crisis:
6 Steps to Help Your Friend in Their Tough Time
1. Honor Your Friend
Choose a time and location that will allow for the best possible conversation with your friend. So don’t approach her first thing in the morning if she’s not a morning person. Or don’t ask him in the locker room at the gym. Pick a time and place that will give your friend the freedom to be open with you. Consider a location, such as your home, that will allow your conversation to remain confidential, especially if you know that your friend is likely to have a strong emotional reaction.
Once you’re there with your friend, be there. Pay attention to her, make eye contact, use attentive body language, and remove distractions such as cell phones.
This is the most important way you can help your friend, and most of your time will be spent on this step. Don’t interrupt, correct, admonish, judge, etc. Resist the urge to fix their situation. Simply listen.
Try not to over-react to what they are saying, and try to keep your emotions stable. You don’t want to be more upset than your friend, as that will only increase their anxiety.
Don’t tell them you know how they feel or downplay their situation with phrases such as, “it could be worse.” These things can come across as undermining their feelings, when they really just need to be reassured that it’s normal to be feeling what they’re feeling.
3. Ask Open-Ended Questions
This goes hand-in-hand with the listening step. A great way to help your friend continue to process their situation is to ask good questions. For example:
- What happened?
- Has it happened before?
- Who else knows about this?
- Tell me about it.
- How are you feeling now?
- Did you tell your parents?
Through questions, guide them to the facts in their situation. It’s likely that they’ve been dwelling on their feelings rather than the facts, so your job is to help them put those facts before their feelings.
Clarify what they say to you. For example, say, “So I hear you saying ____, you mean ____, correct?” This can help them see if their feelings aren’t aligning with the facts.
Watch for statements that show contradiction, ambivalence, or are not grounded in reality, and ask further questions or clarify their statements to gently point those out.
4. Help Them See Their Options
Explore what can be done about their situation. Your job is to help them see they have options. However, resist telling them options of your own, rather, continue to ask good questions that help them see possibilities and lead them to make a list of options. Do make sure that their options lead them away from danger. Pose questions and scenarios such as:
- What if …
- Who can help you?
- What if you told your parents?
- What needs to happen for you to feel safe?
As needed, offer information without shock or emotionally charged statements. Be loving and non-judgmental, and let them know you care about them and will be there for them.
Determine what questions they may have that need answers. Do any of their options require further research? Do they need to spend time investigating additional resources?
5. Affirm Your Friend
Praise your friend for who they are. Tell them that they are valuable and loved. Affirm the positive qualities you see in them or have seen in them in the past. Draw them to their strengths and their resources and how those can be used for the different options they came up with.
Most importantly, help them to know that they’re not alone and that there is hope. As appropriate, use phrases such as, “You can do this,” “You are one of the strongest people I know,” “I will help you, ____ will help you.”
6. Leave Them With an Action Plan
Before you walk away from the conversation with your friend, you should help them figure out what’s next. Empower them to take action, and ask questions to determine how you can help them do that.
- What trusted mentor can you talk to?
- When do you plan to make a phone call about the ___ option that you were thinking about?
- Can I tell _____ about this?
- When will you tell your parents?
- When will you talk to ____?
Sometimes the next step is as simple as asking them if you can call them later or check on them in a couple of days. Then, of course, be sure you follow through on that.
Finally, let them know that they can trust you and that you will keep this confidential unless they have given you permission to talk to someone else about it. Don’t make them regret confiding in you or give them a reason to lose trust in you.
Know When More is Needed
If, in the course of talking to your friend, it becomes clear that they need more support than you are able to provide them, you should seek help. And of course, if your friend exhibits signs of suicidal thoughts or behavior, or threatens to harm someone else, consider that an emergency. They may need professional counseling, help from a mental health professional, or depending upon the situation, medical attention.
Difficult Times Involving an Unplanned Pregnancy or STI
If your friend’s tough time involves a potential sexually transmitted infection or a pregnancy that they weren’t expecting, Valley Women’s Clinic is here. We care about women and want them to be informed about their sexual health.
We provide free testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea, as well as free pregnancy tests. Our trained client advocates can provide a pregnancy options consultation and our nurses can discuss medical options and address sexual health questions. All of our services are free and confidential. Request an appointment at our Blacksburg or Radford clinic.