It’s the time of year where you probably have more contact with your family members. This means conversations may be coming up where you learn that a family member is needing your support.
There is strong societal messaging around the fact that you should always “be there” for your family. This leads to feelings of obligation and guilt. But here’s the thing: you might not always be the best person to support your family member.
Let’s talk about 3 things to keep in mind when a family member needs your support:
1. Sometimes your help stops them from getting the help they actually need.
While you can listen and give advice, sometimes your family member actually needs to talk to a professional. While you can’t force anyone to go to therapy, you can create the space for them to see the need for it. If you answer calls at all hours of the day or are on the phone daily trying to help your loved one, there are a couple of issues.
Sometimes you end up working harder than they are working on their problem, meaning you take the time to give insightful feedback and suggestions and they don’t put it to use. This will create resentment.
Just like doctors don’t give their family members medical care and therapists don’t counsel their loved ones, the help you give a family member is not objective. There are dynamics at play, there is history, there are things you will say that they will receive differently than they would from an objective, qualified source.
“Don’t try to solve problems for your loved ones. Caring for your family doesn’t mean taking charge of their problems, giving unsolicited advice, or protecting them from their own emotions.” (Segal, Jeanne. “Tips to Improve Family Relationships.” Help Guide.org. October 11, 2023. www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/improving-family-relationships-with-emotional-intelligence.htm)
So, if they go to you, you can listen, communicate your love and refrain from giving advice, instead reflect back: “I feel like this is really hard, you’re going through a lot, you deserve support.” It will feel uncomfortable, and your family member might get pissed off. But by leaving a gap, and letting it get uncomfortable, you’re setting up a situation where they might consider getting support.
This also goes for financial or logistical support (like a place to stay, giving rides, etc). If you’re constantly “there” for them, they do not feel the need to get on their own two feet, you become a crutch.
2. Sometimes the help your family member needs actually triggers old trauma, current issues or painful, unresolved dynamics.
Let me explain. Let’s say a family member is going through a break up. But in the past, you’ve been hurt by how they’ve handled relationships and breakups. You are dealing with your own feelings about what’s happening in your loved one’s life and now you are trying to support them. That can lead to complications.
Or let’s say someone passes away. Everyone in your family is grieving and people grieve differently. Some people get really focused on material possessions and logistics, some people want space, and some people want to talk about it. Trying to find support only with the other people grieving the same loss can get really complicated.
Yes, you might benefit from coming together to celebrate the loved one that passed, find solace in connecting with other people who know this pain, but trying to completely support another family member who is having a harder time with grief while you are grieving is not ideal. In this case, grief support groups or therapy are helpful.
If helping a loved one triggers trauma or pain for you, then it’s best to refrain from stepping up and being the person they can lean on. It is not selfish to put your own emotional needs first, sacrificing your own health can have a negative impact on you and the loved one you are trying to help.
3. Support your family member in a way that honors you and honors them.
Yes, I know this might feel selfish at first blush. But if you offer support in a way where you are overextended, this will create more problems.
If you lend money that you really need back and don’t set up expectations or a contract, this can damage your relationship with your family member. If you offer emotional support that you are not able to give for the reasons above, you will resent it and this will create resentment and distance in your relationship.
If you offer a place to stay and don’t clearly discuss your family member’s plans for how long they are staying, you will be hypervigilant in watching how they spend their time and money, and resentful of anything that doesn’t seem to move them toward finding a new place. This will also damage your relationship.
It’s okay to provide support with specific parameters to ensure that you are not taken advantage of. The best support you can give is to tell your family member that you love them, regardless of circumstance. And then support them in a way that reflects that unconditional love for you and them.
If you are having trouble deciding the best way to support a family member contact us, we can help.