by Lisa C. Greene
A mom shares her frustration: "I'm exhausted, overwhelmed, and wiped out. My friends try to help but they just don't understand. When I talk about my child's illness, it makes them uncomfortable. Then I feel bad for burdening them. I feel so alone."
What is support? Support can mean different things to different people. Certain aspects of our mainstream culture focus heavily on independence and individualism. This may lead some to believe that the need for support is a weakness or something to be avoided. Most of the old cowboy movies show the ending scene of the hero riding off into the sunset- alone. Unless you count the horse....
Despite this American point of view, research resoundingly shows that support has many benefits. "It is well established that people who perceive themselves to be supported by others exhibit more positive physical health, mental health, and longevity than those who perceive themselves as not having support from others."[i]
Research also shows that people need to determine their own needed level of support. Some people want a little, others want a lot. People who have unwanted support "forced" on them-despite good intentions- can experience increased distress. "Help giving can even be harmful if it undermines parents' sense of mastery and control, threatens their self-esteem, or engenders dependency on the help provider."[ii]
We've all experienced well-meaning people who say absolutely the worst thing at the worst time. And hopefully, we have also experienced the healing touch of two hearts connecting to encourage and bring hope. So let's take a look at how we can best give and receive support throughout our journey of raising a child with special medical needs.
Let’s start with what support is not:
1. Giving advice, telling someone what to do, or trying to "fix" them.
2. Taking over a conversation and telling the person you are supporting about your own story.
3. Saying “I know exactly how you feel.” Even if you have been in a similar situation, you can't really be in their shoes. We are all different.
4. Being critical, judgmental, or patronizing.
5. Being negative or pessimistic. Saying things like: "That's terrible!" or "What an awful situation" are less than helpful.
6. Using clichés like “God only gives you what you can handle” or "The sunshine comes after the rain" can be hurtful and dismissive.
What support is:
1. Listening deeply; helping the other person feel not only heard, but felt.
2. Being fully present in the moment.
3. Empathy and compassion.
4. Sometimes support is a hug, a gentle touch, or a hand to hold. (Keep in mind that there may be cultural differences to consider when determining if a form of touch is or is not appropriate).
5. Asking questions: "What can I do to help?" "How can I support you?"
Tips for giving support:
1. Before giving support, ask if the other person wants it. "Do you feel like talking about this now?" Of course if they say "No," don't push it. Say, "Okay. I am here whenever you need me."
2. Before offering support, relax yourself and put your body into an open posture. Open your mind and heart to the other person's presence.
3. Put away all distractions including the wanderings of your own mind. Practice mindfulness: Bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.[iii]
4. Be aware of timing and your environment. It matters.
5. Be aware of body language and cues; both yours and the other person's. In mainstream culture we consider crossed arms, looking around, and lack of eye contact as cues that the other person doesn't want to engage. However it is important to remember that there may be cultural differences in body language and communication styles. If you are able to learn more about an individual’s culture, you may be able to more effectively support him or her.
6. The tone of voice and the way words are said can convey unintentional messages like judgmentalism or pessimism.
7. Some conversations may lend themselves to problem solving. However, before launching into "fix it" mode, be sure to listen deeply, with empathy. Then ask: "Would you like ideas about how to handle this?" Follow their lead.
8. If you don't know what to say, ask a question. "How are you feeling about that?" "What can I do to help?"
9. Offering to pray with the other person can be helpful depending on their background and culture. Be sure to ask: "Can I say a prayer for you?" Make your prayer genuine and heartfelt. Pray for strength, comfort, wisdom and guidance, not cures or miracles. Studies show that faith builds resilience.
10. Encouragement, hope, and feeling cared about are what most people need during a hard time.
Tips for receiving support:
1. If you need support, ask for it. This is not a sign of weakness or inability to cope. It's actually a sign of strength, self-awareness, and resilience.
2. Let people know what kind of support you want. Do you want to simply be listened to? Hugged? Help solving a problem? A babysitter? A meal? Help your support person to be successful in meeting your needs.
3. Recognize that most people are not therapists. They will be inept; they will say the wrong thing. Forgive them. Know that they are doing their best to love and care for you.
4. Know that some people are safer than others when it comes to support. Some people just aren't capable of providing effective support for whatever reasons. Be discerning about who you turn to in your time of need.
5. It is healthy to set boundaries around yourself during times of deep grief. You are not obligated to share if you are not ready. Just be sure that you don't shut others out forever.
6. If you are feeling depressed for more than 2 or 3 weeks, consider talking with a professional. If you want to hurt yourself and/or anyone else, seek professional assistance immediately.
Walking beside another during a difficult time can be one of life's most meaningful moments. With a little awareness about the basic do's and don'ts and a heart open to caring, connecting and compassion, you will be successful in touching the lives of others as well as being touched by them.
Lisa C. Greene, BS CCP
Lisa is a national public speaker, family life educator, certified parent coach and a mom of two children with cystic fibrosis. She is also the co-author with Foster Cline MD of the award-winning Love and Logic© book “Parenting Children with Health Issues.” Lisa's mission is to help parents learn practical ways to deal with the everyday challenges of raising kids. Her message is: "You can do it!"
For more information, see www.ParentingChildrenWithHealthIssues.com.
[i]Horton, T. V., & Wallander, J. L. (2001). Hope and social support as resilience factors against psychological distress of mothers who care for children with chronic physical conditions. Rehabilitation Psychology, 46(4), 382.
[ii]Affleck, G., Tennen, H., Rowe, J., Roscher, B., & Walker, L. (April 01, 1989). Effects of Formal Support on Mothers' Adaptation to the Hospital-to-Home Transition of High-Risk Infants: The Benefits and Costs of Helping. Child Development, 60, 2, 488-501.
[iii]Marlatt, G. A., & Kristeller, J. L. (1999). Mindfulness and meditation.