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4 Ways to Help Someone Who's Struggling Emotionally

Small, specific behaviors can have a significant effect.

Key points

  • Social support is a key component of well-being, so convey the message that you notice and care when someone is struggling.
  • Research shows gift-giving can make a positive difference if the gift is personalized.
  • Avoid giving unsolicited advice but share coping behaviors that have worked for you.

When life presents challenges, social support can make a significant difference. If someone you care about is struggling emotionally, there are specific behaviors you can practice to help that individual cope.

The cornerstone of social support is connectedness, so those with strong social support feel less isolated and more connected. When you see someone struggling, the goal is to set aside your thoughts and feelings and focus on theirs for a moment.

Though everyone faces competing demands for their time and energy, it’s important to remember that not everyone experiences emotional struggles at exactly the same time. If you are in a period of life when things are going okay, practice gratitude by acknowledging that and going out of your way to help someone else. What comes to mind before reviewing ways you can show support is the adage, “The best way to help yourself is to help somebody else.”

Take a time-out to check in with the struggling person and ask how they’re truly doing.

In the typical daily greeting when two people cross paths, one asks the other, “How are you?” The question, while friendly, is perfunctory. These expressions are issued so quickly and automatically that most people don’t think to answer honestly–or authentically.

If someone in your life is struggling, check in with them in person or call them on the phone and ask, “How are you really doing? Are you doing okay?” Often, someone struggling needs to be reassured that they won’t burden anyone by sharing what’s really going on with them, so ask the question a few different ways. In posing these questions, use the softest edge of your voice and speak calmly and slowly, sending the message that you have time to listen to them.

Offer specific examples of ways you can help.

It’s one thing to state, “I'm here to help"; It’s another to ask, “Would it help if I ran an errand or two for you this weekend?” or “Is there anything on your daily to-do list you could turn over to me, so you have one less thing to do?”

If you’re wondering how effective this technique can be, ask yourself how good it would feel when you’re struggling if the people in your life came to you and asked you the same question. The problem with the human challenges of daily life and the egos that sometimes guide our behavior is that we, as a community, often end up operating from separate, emotional silos. By offering specific examples of help, you leave your silo for a moment and give another a chance to climb out of theirs and meet you.

Give a small gift that meets one condition.

Another behavior you can practice with someone who is struggling is to give them a small but meaningful gift. Research on gift-giving shows that a gift that is personalized is more appreciated by the recipient, and gifts that are personalized and practical have particular value (Rim, 2019). Take a moment and think about the struggling individual in your life and ask yourself what type of gift would be most valuable to them now. For instance, if the struggling individual is feeling lonely, a photograph of a person or thing they love may be appreciated; for someone who is overwhelmed with daily demands and has little time to spare, a gift of a couple of prepared meals may be most appreciated.

Share what has worked for you rather than doling out unsolicited advice.

Simply telling the person to start eating healthier or exercising more does not necessarily lead to change. To avoid causing defensiveness or irritation by telling the struggling individual what they should or shouldn't do, focus instead on gently mentioning a couple of behaviors that worked for you when you had a challenging time in the past. Reflect for a moment on what has worked for you as you consider what coping tips may be worth sharing.

In your experience, was it unplugging and carving out some quiet time for yourself to spend time in nature or to have relaxation time with a friend? Was it forcing yourself to get out of your stagnant routines and take a day to shop for yourself, visit your favorite museum or amusement park, or attend a friend's dinner party or game night? When you share a couple of behaviors that helped you in the past, share your examples and add, "That's just my two cents, but no matter what, I believe things will get better."

Final Message

It often takes a struggling individual a little time to move into a more positive life phase. When you practice any of the behaviors above, remember that showing such support doesn't have to be a one-time occurrence. Practice these behaviors a few times, or at least once as a follow-up, to send a true message of caring.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Rim S, Min KE, Liu PJ, Chartrand TL, Trope Y. The Gift of Psychological Closeness: How Feasible Versus Desirable Gifts Reduce Psychological Distance to the Giver. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2019 Mar;45(3):360-371. doi: 10.1177/0146167218784899. Epub 2018 Jul 20. PMID: 30027819.

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