How to Help Others Cope with Change

Cope With Change

When I moved away to college, I had the trunk space of a Dodge Colt to hold all of my worldly possessions. I took a few suitcases of clothes, a box of childhood stuffed animals, and a hand-me-down TV. Both of my older sisters had lugged that ancient 13″ TV to their college dorm rooms, and they were passing it on to me. I remember staring down unconvinced at that beaten up black box and saying, “Do I really need this?”

“Yes, you need it,” my sister told me, shutting the trunk of the car. “Trust me.”

Turns out she was right. That TV became a focal point of how I dealt with living on my own for the first time. I watched the same news my mom watched every morning, which staved off homesickness. My room became a hub for Friday night movie parties on my dorm floor. When my college boyfriend broke up with me, I bought an old video game system and whiled away many lonely hours as I got over him. My sisters had not just given me a TV, they had given me a coping mechanism for a transitional period in my life.

If you look back at your life, you can probably remember a time when someone helped you through a tough change. Whether it be going to college, having marital trouble, or dealing with an illness, people have been there for you. Most of us genuinely want to help others go through similar life experiences that we have. If you find yourself wanting to help a friend cope, here are a few simple do’s and don’ts that you can use to maximize your effort:

Do talk about your experience…

We all feel a little better if we realize we aren’t the first person who has gone through a change. During my pregnancy, I asked all my motherhood friends what to expect so I could prepare myself for labor and beyond. So go ahead and take a walk down memory lane with a friend. They can take comfort in the fact that they are not alone in this experience.

…But don’t expect everyone to feel like you did.

While talking about your experiences, be careful not to appear preachy. A little advice is okay, but dispensing a lot of “you should do’s” can isolate your friend, especially if they don’t cope with things the same way you do. Instead, try to limit your story to just that – your story – and avoid becoming a “Dear Abby” column.

Do give away things that helped you cope…

Like my sister, you can give away specific things that helped you cope with the situation. A friend going through a rough time might need a healthy distraction. Giving away a thoughtful gift like a gift card to your friend’s favorite restaurant is usually appreciated. This can help stave off the pressure of consistently needing to deal with the problem.

…But don’t be offended if your friend doesn’t use it.

Just because you give something away, doesn’t mean your friend has to use it. Maybe your friend doesn’t feel like going out and never uses the gift card. Don’t get upset about it because, again, we all cope with the same situations in the same way. Be satisfied that you are trying to help, and more often than not, your friend will appreciate the thought that went behind the gift even if they don’t need it.

Do make yourself available…

Beyond just one-shot talks and gifts, make yourself available to your friend. This can be as simple as calling once in a while or sending a funny Internet link you know they will appreciate. People going through difficult times can get so wrapped up in stress that they forget they have friends who can help. Some friends might not feel comfortable approaching you first, so making yourself available removes that obstacle.

…But don’t take it personally if your friend doesn’t open up.

Make sure not to overdo how available you are. If you are worried about someone, you may be tempted to call them every hour, but doing so could overload your friend and make them less likely to reach out to you. Instead, keep it subtle but reasonably consistent. Again, just being there can be enough to make a person feel better about the situation.

* * *

I’m not sure what happened to my college TV, but I remember giving my video games away to a close friend once I finished playing them. It felt good to pass a little entertainment on. I honestly don’t know if he ever played those games, but that’s okay. I didn’t need them anymore, and who knows? There’s always a chance it helped him out too, just when he needed it.

Photo by PhotoVandal

15 thoughts on “How to Help Others Cope with Change”

  1. My thoughts? “What she said.” :-)

    Thanks, Deborah, for reminding us to be unobtrusively present and available to people who are transitioning. Sometimes they need to talk, sometimes they want advice, sometimes they want a distraction from all the stress (the opportunity to pretend, just for a few moments, that nothing is changing after all), and sometimes they just want to get on with the change as fast as possible in order to move on with their lives. Your advice reminds us to take that middle ground of making ourselves available while trying not to be obtrusive or annoying in our concern or worry for others who are in the middle of change. Your reminders to not take it personally if others experience change differently than we do or if they utilize entirely different coping mechanisms from our own are particularly apropos.

    Great post, as always–

    1. I’ve noticed too that the same people in different situations often want different things. Being pregnant, I wanted to talk more because that helped me prepare. When I went through my divorce, I wanted distraction because the advice I was given felt more condescending to me (although in reality it was probably just my state of mind). We can’t always predict how others will react to a major life change, so as the support group, it’s good to be open to many ways of offering help.

  2. I like the don’t be offended if your friend doesn’t use it sort of mentality you’ve written about. It’s giving value without expecting anything back. I find often driven people who are so motivated to change or evolve themselves have a hard time relating when someone doesn’t want to pursue their own growth. Helping others change really feels like the next step after you’ve made significant improvement in your own life — enough to offer whatever help others need and expect nothing in return.

    Good post.

    1. Not expecting anything back makes a huge difference. Most people would agree with that, but they still do not realize that “not expecting anything” means not even expecting any sort of appreciation. People going through a stressful period may lash out or withdraw. They don’t often have the mental frame of mind to send thank you cards or gush over your friendship. They probably aren’t even thinking about your feelings at this point, so you shouldn’t feel hurt if you feel you are ignored. Give them time to work through their situation and simply be supportive.

  3. Good advice.
    For me, it’s always been books that helped me through times of change. I will never forget one friend giving me an Agatha Christie novel to help heal my broken heart, becuase she knew it would keep my mind off. I’d never read ACh books before and I wasn’t a crime novel fan, but it did the trick: kept me focus on the plot and turning the pages instead of sobbing my heart out. The same happened when another friend, many years later lent me a Harry Potter when I was going through a very difficult time. Worked the trick!

    1. Sounds like you’ve got some great friends who knew just what you needed when you needed it. When I moved overseas for a couple of years, a new friend that I met during my travels got me hooked on Stephanie Plum novels. I don’t think she realized how much those helped me feel a bit of home while living abroad.

  4. Good advice here. I have used most of these things in some capacity over the years. I have a dear friend who was diagnosed with MS recently and I really wanted to support her but really had no clue where to start. It’s good to know that when some of my instincts kicked in they were not far off from your recommended actions. One thing that I found extremely valuable along the way was asking questions from a place of sincerity. I recall saying something like, “I am finding myself awkward and confused about how to best support you.” She very clearly explained to me that many people are afraid to bring up her diagnosis because they don’t know how to deal with this big change. My friend said that she wanted me to be honest about how it was effecting me too, and to bring it up often so she feels safe to discuss it. This was critical information and I will use this approach again.

    Great stuff!

    1. That is a great piece of advice, Leslie. You can always just ask the person how they want to be supported. They may not know what they want, but if they do, you can clear a bunch of hurdles simply by opening lines of communication.

  5. Sometimes we grab onto the things in our lives that are familiar. I just moved away from my hometown for a career opportunity and the change was exciting at first but eventually I started to miss the constants in my life. Gotta keep moving forward.

    1. Good luck with your move and new job. I’ve struggled with the concept of staying close to family vs. following my career for the last 15 years (which has resulted in me moving around a lot). If you’ve just gotten over the honeymoon phase of the move, all I can say is give yourself a little time to recover from the funk before deciding to move home. Sometimes it’s worth the stay, sometimes it’s not.

      1. I think there are times in our life when we need a change, and then there are times when we need to hold onto the constants. As usual, it’s all about balance.

        As someone who has moved around a lot in life, changing houses, cities and countries (not always to my full benefit), I agree with Deborah – give yourself a little time to recover, but I would say from both – the honeymoon and homesickness, so when you make a decision about what you want to do with your life next, it comes from the real you,a nd not you affected by a transient state of mind. Otherwise you may end up being in a wrong place again.

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