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Being an Emotional Sponge: Tips For Youth Supporting Friends

What can we do to help young people who support peers with emotional problems?

Can Stock Photo/Antonio Guillem
Source: Can Stock Photo/Antonio Guillem

Mental health problems among young people are on the rise. Recent studies show that depression , anxiety , suicide and loneliness are escalating and that many young people are struggling.

The good news is that more young people are openly talking about emotional and behavioral challenges . Still, stigma, shame, and limited access to mental health professionals remain barriers for seeking help.

In my practice, I have repeatedly seen young people turn to friends as their first and often primary source for help. This makes sense; most teens and young adults naturally look to their friends first for advice and emotional support. Rather than reach out to everyone, they seek an individual who is sensitive, compassionate, thoughtful, and trustworthy. And given the barriers to accessing professional mental health services, peers can play an important role in helping their friends.

But here’s the rub: Being a friend’s primary source of support can be challenging. It’s one thing to help them navigate the ups and downs in everyday life – a bad breakup, a bad grade, or family problems. But when it comes to potentially significant mental health challenges that a friend isn’t equipped to handle, the helper may feel overwhelmed and as though they are the lifeline – maybe the only one that can keep their friend afloat . Denying help feels like it’s not an option.

What’s more, young people who find themselves in these situations are not there by chance. Since they are so sensitive and caring, they’re more likely to be the focus of and accept their friends’ cries for support. The same personal qualities that make them safe for others to turn to are the ones that make it hard for them to set limits.

They become emotional sponges.

Pros and Cons to Being an Emotional Sponge

There are both potential benefits and potential risks for young people who find themselves in this kind of situation. Here are some things parents and young people should be aware of.

Benefits:

  • It feels good to help others. Being a trustworthy friend is an honor and a privilege. It demonstrates you are a good and reliable person. This boosts self-esteem.
  • It fosters a personal identity as a helper. As a giver, not a taker, it reflects an ability to listen, validate, understand, and be compassionate to others.
  • It helps to think more deeply about mental health issues. Taking the time to become involved in helping others provides the opportunity not only to learn about them, but learn about yourself. The end result is increased social emotional awareness, which fosters resilience.
  • Peer support has been shown to be helpful. Simply put, talking helps. So much so that peer counseling may actually help to fill a gap in services on college campuses, for situations where clinical treatment isn’t required. Even organizations that work to foster peer support in school settings provide professional supervision for the young people involved.

Risks:

  • Feeling overwhelmed. Mental health professionals are trained in how to manage their own emotional reactions to patients, but most people are not. Supporting a friend who is struggling with serious or consuming emotional health challenges may lead to being “on-call” for that friend, and constant worries and anxiety.
  • A friend’s struggles being too much too handle. Some psychiatric disorders, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, additions, and eating disorders, can be quite serious, and too much for a friend to handle. Young people (and most adults!) are not trained mental health professionals. Friends shouldn’t be in a position to be “treating” friends. Not only can this feel stressful or scary, it can be dangerous.
  • Feeling afraid to ask for help. Sometimes, a friend will explicitly ask you not to tell anyone about what they share. Other times, it may feel like a betrayal of trust to call a parent, teacher, or mental health professional – enough of a betrayal to possibly lose your friend. But reaching out to an adult in a potentially dangerous situation is a sign of true concern and caring for a friend’s well-being. It’s better to be safe than to risk a friend hurting him or herself and feeling responsible.
  • Feeling guilty that you are doing well. It’s natural to compare ourselves to others. When a friend is struggling and you aren’t, feelings of guilt may set in about not experiencing any serious problems in life.

Tips for Parents

As a parent, if your teen or young adult is a confidant to a friend, they may not share what’s going on with you. They may not want to betray a friend’s trust or fear you might talk with other adults about it. In addition, some young people value their privacy and feel they can manage on their own.

Even so, you may be able to support your child in this kind of “emotional sponge” situation. Here are some things you can do to help mitigate the effects:

  • Start conversations early. Your kids will be more open to share a potentially difficult situation with you if you’ve had conversations with them before about relationships with friends. If they view you as a trusted and confidential sounding board, they are more likely to share concerns and come to you for help, throughout life.
  • Ask how things are going. It’s always helpful to ask your kids from time to time how they’re doing – with friends, at school, and in other activities. Be prepared for eye rolls, but if you regularly show interest, they may open up every now and then.

If you know about an issue with a friend:

  • Offer support for their struggle. If you’re aware of the risks and benefits mentioned above, you can ask your child open-ended questions about how they’re feeling without needing to know specific details of their friend’s situation. Reassure them they can come to you anytime for advice. Keep the door open, and they will come when they’re ready. If you think they would prefer to talk with someone else, suggest a family member or another trusted individual in your community.
  • Share the ‘Tips for Young People,’ below. If your child isn’t ready to open up to you or another trusted individual for support, they may benefit from some of the reminders below, which they can keep in their own self-care toolbox.

Tips for Teens and Young Adults

As a young person, if you find yourself providing ongoing emotional support to a friend struggling with a mental health challenge, here are some tips to help you manage the situation.

1. Establish your role, goals, and limitations early. Make the decision early on about whether you are willing to provide peer support. It’s hard to say no, but it is your choice. If you agree to help, even for a seemingly minor matter, it’s important to have an initial conversation about what you can and can’t do. You can say you are happy to listen and provide support and advice, as a friend. But they also need to know:

  • You are not a mental health professional, so you cannot provide advice for situations that require years of training.
  • You cannot be the only person providing help, as it is too much responsibility for you to carry alone.
  • Perhaps most importantly, you may need to call someone else – a parent, teacher, or doctor – if you feel your friend is in danger. You cannot ensure absolute confidentiality.

These preliminary talks are essential. They prevent misunderstandings or your friend feeling betrayed. And, if you need to bring in others, you will have this agreement from the outset.

2. Don’t worry alone. While your friend may only want to talk with you about their situation, it’s not helpful or healthy for you – or for them – to carry the full weight of emotional support. In the beginning, you ask whom else you can bring into the situation. This may be another friend, a teacher, parent, or a counselor. Setting up a small team is a great way to prevent feeling that the entire burden of assistance rests on your shoulders.

3. Take care of yourself. You need to put on your own life-mask first before helping the person next to you, as the airplane announcement goes. We can only help others if we’re in a good emotional place and can think clearly.

There’s nothing better than being able to help a friend in need. However, when it comes to providing emotional support and advice, some careful planning, healthy boundaries, and thinking things through in advance can go a long way to helping yourself, as well.

Previously posted on The Clay Center for Young Health Minds webpage.

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