Tips to Support a Friend through Hardship

In the midst of the winter semester– with its flurry of midterms to study for, papers to write, assignments to complete, extracurricular projects to execute, work commitments, and for graduating students, the additional pressure of interviews and applications– it can be easy for students to stumble, especially when overwhelmed by an acute stressor. For those who want to help a friend going through a difficult time, but are not entirely sure how- consider these tips below.

  1. Reach out.

When you are stuck in a rut, it can seem like you are alone and up against the world. Regardless of how many friends or family members may be physically present, a lack of emotional connection can feel like harrowing isolation. That is why reaching out is the most important first step. It can be as simple as sending a text to say “hello”, but this act can go a long way. Make yourself available, and ensure that they know you are available. Knowing that someone cares about you can make a world of a difference.

If they are comfortable, schedule a concrete time to meet over coffee, video chat, or hang out. It is easy for vague plans to fall through (how many times have you messaged someone/been messaged by someone to catch up, only to find yourself a year later sending/receiving the same message?). The more specific you can be with plans, the better.

With that said, avoid being too persistent or overbearing if they are not comfortable with opening up. An aspect of supporting them is also to respect their personal boundaries. It is not always necessary to plan something immediately – by reaching out and making yourself available, you are opening the door for possible support in the future.

  1. You don’t have to know what to say.

If you were to ask anyone what the greatest barrier to supporting a friend is, 9 times out of 10, they will likely respond that they don’t know what to say. People tend to focus on saying the “right” thing or finding absolute answers to problems that have likely persisted for a long time, but that is not necessary to support a friend.

Being compassionate, empathetic, and genuinely invested is often all it takes. Though, if you are ever stuck, validating and normalizing their feelings is always a great way to help them feel like they are not alone in their experience. Example statements include: “It is totally understandable for you to feel sad after losing your job” or “Anyone in your situation would feel the same way”. Regardless of what you say, being a shoulder to lean on may be the most powerful way to help.

  1. Know your own limit.

I volunteered with the Peer Support Centre at the University of Alberta, supporting students and providing crisis intervention for 3 years. An analogy I learned from my time there and continue to apply is the “oxygen mask” analogy. On an airplane, if the situation were to arise, we are always instructed to put on our own oxygen mask before helping someone else – not because we are encouraged to be selfish, but because we cannot help other people if we are not even in the position to help ourselves.

Likewise, this analogy can apply to all other situations in life. If you are not in a position to help yourself, you cannot expect yourself to help someone else. Therefore, it is important for supporters to recognize their own limits, set boundaries and adhere to them, and practice self-care.

At the end of the day, there is no right way to support a friend. As long as you reach out and recognize your own limits, you can’t go wrong.


Image Credit: Splitshire

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