When a loved one is in therapy, it is not at all uncommon to feel helpless. You may worry that you have nothing to offer up by means of support, and may feel as though you’re constantly walking with tentative steps, worried about the possibility of triggering them into the depths of some deep emotion where you’re not sure how to help them find the surface again.
Your loved one needs you and you’re aware of this, but it’s true that it is not always an easy task to support a loved one in therapy.
The following are some tips that may help steer you in the right direction:
1. Take an interest in their therapy sessions.
Allow them to take the lead on this in setting their own boundaries about what they are comfortable discussing. Let them tell you whether they appreciate your questioning or not, and regardless of the answer, let it be known that you care. They may require support in sifting through some past occurrence or mutual memory, or may need your guiding hand to help them follow all treatment recommendations.
Many times the “homework” someone will receive from a therapist will be challenging or meant to get them out of their comfort zone. Sometimes the best role that you can play is participating with them in whatever challenge of the week has been assigned. It is important however not to nag or to get on them about doing their work as they need to find the motivation within themselves to do it on their own. Otherwise it’s unlikely that the treatment will stick or the lessons learned will take root.
2. Don’t say “I’ve been there”; Be there
Perhaps the worst possible thing you might say to someone who is struggling is “I understand”. When doing so, more than any attempt at letting them know that we are on the same page, we invite argument, and frustration from someone who likely has already decided that no one can quite understand the depths of their pain. Even admitting, “I’ve been there” is something that may be perceived as one person looking down on the other because they’re still struggling.
What these individuals need most, more than any motivational pep talk, is someone to stand beside them who is unafraid to venture into their own heart, their own struggle, in order to connect to that place within someone else. Solidarity in the human condition can be a beacon of hope for these individuals and may be the best possible source of support that you can offer.
3. Model your own healthy coping skills
Modeling your own healthy coping skills is another of the important ways that you can show support for your loved one in therapy. When you develop and implement healthy practices in nutrition, exercise, and sleep, you encourage your loved ones to do the same via the most meaningful route –your actions. Developing calming strategies and emotion management tools of your own will help the entire family system to heal and progress.
4. Avoid Judgement and Criticism
Move away from the realm of judgment and criticism, and trust that the therapist working with your loved one has a much more artful approach towards correcting negative behaviors then you do. You may still offer feedback about negative behaviors observed, but take the time to think about the words you’re using and the message you would like to communicate. Check yourself regarding how your body language and facial expressions may still be communicating the messages you’ve thought better than to speak aloud and recognize that these too have an impact.
5. Educate Yourself
When a loved one is in therapy, you may want to take the time to educate yourself about what that actually means. What it looks like or feels like to enter into the therapeutic space or office. Gathering information from your loved one who is in treatment, or looking things up online yourself is a great place to start. Educate yourself about the signs of mental illness and more specific ways that you can support them in their journey with a particular diagnosis. Learning about the process will also communicate a message to your loved one that you are invested in their health and well-being.
6. Make Space
In order for others to grow, you have to make space for them to do so. For example, if your loved one was struggling with skills in cleaning up after themselves, you would need to refrain from doing it yourself so that they can have the opportunity to learn the important skill themselves. The same is true with all aspects of mental health. If they struggle with communication, you need to make room for them to try, to make mistakes, and patience to help shape them in the process. Empower your loved ones to put their learning into practice and rather than problem-solving or offering advice, ask instead “what can we do to help you feel better?”
Remember that this is the prize –your loved one returning to the person that they were always meant to be, and requires adjusting yourself so that they have the freedom to do so.