Everybody deals with family problems. Some are far worse than others, of course, but everyone deals with them. Growing up, we moved from Florida to California, and my dad left six months before we did to begin his new job.
My mom is an educator, I was in the seventh grade, and my brother was in the fourth grade, and no one wanted to disrupt our lives in the middle of a school year.
Dad left in January, and we didn’t see him again until we moved in June. It was a difficult time for our family – moving, being away from dad, the changes. No one knew what to say to me during those last six months at ‘home’ and I get it.
What an age to go through that kind of disruption. In theory, my family issue was not a big deal when you think about the other issues some families face. Divorce, the death of a parent or child, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse – there are so many family problems that are far worse than most of us can imagine.
But that doesn’t negate the feelings people have when they are dealing with family issues that might not seem like a big deal to anyone else. Problems are problems, and everyone is allowed to be sad, to mourn, and to feel what they feel.
Feelings are not wrong. However, being there for a friend going through family issues is not always as easy as it might appear. Are you saying the right thing? Doing the right thing? Offering the correct advice?
Not Every Friend Needs or Wants Advice
Every friend going through a family issue needs you to be there for them, but they don’t always need your advice. Sometimes, people going through life issues simply want a listening ear and a person who is there to hug them, hold their hand, and be a safe and solid presence during a difficult time.
The problem is knowing what your friend is looking for from you. Do they want your advice, or do they simply want you to be there? It’s difficult to know, but it’s never rude to ask. Simply asking, “How can I be here for you right now?” is often all it takes to understand what your friend is looking for.
The key is to really listen when your friend answers. If they say they simply need you to be there as a listening ear, don’t offer advice. Don’t try to provide a solution. Simply listen.
You can tell your friend you are sorry, that you are praying for them, thinking of them, etc. But don’t offer advice unless your friend asks you to do so. Your friend told you that they need nothing more from you than a listening ear, so offer that alone unless they ask otherwise.
Offer Practical Help if The Situation Calls for It
Not every family problem your friend is going through requires this. For example, if your friend’s marriage is falling apart and she’s worried that her husband is cheating on her, there’s not much you can do other than listen to her and be there for her when she needs you.
However, if her husband is drinking too much and coming home in a rage, practical help might come in the form of offering her a safe place to sleep in your guest room or on your couch when she is worried about his behavior.
Offer Resources to Help Your Friend
Another great thing you can do for your friend when they are dealing with family issues is to offer resources if they are available. There are resources for everything from domestic abuse to divorce to infidelity to drug and alcohol addiction to death.
Do keep in mind that your friend might not be ready for the resources that are available, but having them on hand to give her is helpful. She might utilize the resources, and she might not. You can’t make her use them, but a good friend is going to have them ready to give to her when she’s ready to ask for help.
Become a Vault
When your friend is going through a family issue, the single most important thing you can do for her is become her vault. This means being her confidante. It means not telling anyone else what is going on in her life.
It means not sharing her journey or personal story with anyone. Your job is to keep her secrets and not share her personal feelings and upsets with anyone else. Your other job is to remain calm.
What to Keep in Mind Before Offering Advice to Your Friend
Now that we have established the ground rules, there are just a few things to keep in mind prior to offering any type of advice or help to your friend. This is important advice, and it’s not the type of advice that can be ignored.
1. Your friend’s decisions are the only ones that matter. Essentially – your friend is the one who has to make the decision how to handle their family situation in the end, so your opinions about their decisions do not matter.
2. Your friend is the one who has to live with the consequences of their decision. Not you. Remember that.
3. You don’t know the entire story. No matter what your friend is telling you, how much they confide in you, and what they are saying to you, they’re still not telling you one hundred percent of what is going on in their life right now. It’s imperative you remember that.
4. You’ve made poor choices in the past. Don’t forget that when you’re helping your friend make a decision about their own family problems. You are not perfect, and you are not always right.
Now that you are keeping all of this in your mind, you are better equipped to offer advice to your friend should they ask for it.
How To Offer Useful and Practical Advice to a Friend Going Through Family Issues
A friend going through a family issue doesn’t need someone to give them a guide by guide to-do list of advice. Rather, they probably need someone to validate their feelings, to offer a different perspective, and to pose different solutions.
It is entirely too easy to look at someone’s life from the outside and have all the answers, but the person on the inside might not know how to live their life in that manner.
For example, you might know exactly what you would do in your friend’s situation because you aren’t tied intimately to the problem. Your friend? It’s too personal for objectivity.
Your job now is to remind your friend that you don’t have all the answers, but that you do think you might be able to help. Remember – do not judge, do not use angry words, and do not talk down to your friend.
Now is the time to listen, be judgment free, and to listen with your heart. If your friend wants your advice, ask them if there is a different angle they could try to look at the problem from.
Validate Your Friend’s Feelings
The single most important thing you will do right now is make sure your friend knows her feelings are not incorrect or wrong in any way. She’s not wrong to have her feelings, so make sure she knows that.
Tell her in no uncertain terms that you get it, that she’s right to feel the way she feels, and that her feelings should not be discounted by anyone. Validate her feelings, and go from there.
Offer a Different Perspective
The trick to offering a new perspective is to ask your friend if they want advice, and then ask them if there is any way to look at the situation other than their own way. Ask them to put themselves in the shoes of the family member with whom they are having an issue.
It might not solve their problems, but it might open up your friend’s eye to a new perspective, or at least a deeper level of understanding that might allow them to see the issue from a different point of view.
If they can see the issue from their loved one’s point of view – they don’t even have to agree with it or be all right with it – they might garner a better understanding of what is going on in the lives of their loved ones, and that might open the door for a much more productive conversation between them.
Pose Different Solutions
This is the moment you talk through the issue at hand with your friend. You’ve heard the problem, you’ve looked at it from different points of view, and now you ask your friend how she feels about different methods of handling the issue. Let’s say that your friend’s issue is a cheating spouse who is having an emotional affair with another woman, and she doesn’t know what to do.
She’s looked at it from a different perspective – that of her husband – and she’s come to the conclusion that her husband is stressed, she’s stressed, the kids are at a difficult stage, life is busy, and they don’t spend any quality time together as a result. She can take responsibility in honoring the fact that she’s not giving her husband what he needs to feel fulfilled in their marriage, but she’s not taking responsibility for his decision to engage in an emotional affair. Now she has to figure out what to do.
Examples of Solutions (Personal Solutions for Your Friend’s Situation)
– Solution: You decide to go through a trial separation for six months to see what happens. What do you do in that time? Does he leave? Do you leave? What about the kids? Do you go through therapy?
– Solution: You divorce him. Do you see yourself working through this at all? Can you see yourself forgiving him and him never doing this again? Do you see your marriage ever being a comfortable, happy, safe place ever again? It’ll take time to regain trust and stability, and do you have that in you?
– Solution: You ignore it and hope it stops. Is this something you can do? Can you move past this on your own?
– Solution: You try again. You give him the time and attention he needs. He gives you the time and attention you need. You talk to one another, come up with a game plan, and you work to prioritize your marriage.
Remember – you don’t have to like her decision, and you don’t have to like any of these solutions. However, they are all on the table until your friend decides what she wants to do.
Ask Your Friend if the Problem is As Big As it Could Be
This is NOT the same as telling your friend it could be worse or giving her an ‘at least it’s not…’ because in her life, this is rock bottom, the worst, and the most difficult. Do not minimize her feelings by saying something like ‘Well, at least it’s just an emotional text message affair and he didn’t physically cheat on you,’ because pointing out that it might be worse is not helpful in any situation when someone is feeling down.
However, you can ask your friend to describe how this situation could be worse in her mind. Let her work through her feelings this way, and hopefully she will see that maybe the problem isn’t hopeless. Perhaps her looking into her own heart to acknowledge all the ways that it could be worse – in her own heart, not from your mouth – is what she needs to do to figure out how she wants to handle this.
Remember, offering your friend advice does not mean telling them what they should do or even what you would do. If your friend asks what you would do in the same situation, give the honest answer that you simply don’t know if you’ve never been in that situation. If you have been in that situation, share your story and your why. But never tell your friend what to do when offering advice.
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