By: Amanda Holmstrom, PhD, Associate Professor of Communication, Michigan State University

We often hear that “emotional support” is important for people with chronic conditions like type 1 diabetes. However, what is emotional support? How can we be sure to provide good emotional support to our loved ones?

Emotional support is care and concern shown toward someone who is having a tough time. For example, you might want to cheer up a friend who’s upset because she’s having difficulty managing her blood sugar. Or, you might want to comfort your child who’s hurting after a classmate made a nasty remark about him missing a lot of school for doctor’s appointments.

Research shows that providing and receiving emotional support is an important component of our close relationships. However, there are so many ways that we could help our loved ones when they are hurting that it’s easy to get confused about what to do. We really want to help, but sometimes we end up having the opposite effect.

Fortunately, a lot of research has been done to help us know how to help others when they need emotional support. Here are some research-approved strategies that are usually seen as helpful:

  • Find a time and place: Make sure that you have the time to talk and an appropriate place to do so. For example, it’s hard to offer really good emotional support in the 20 seconds before your child runs out the door to catch the bus. Carve out some time where the two of you can feel free to say what’s on your minds.
  • Say you care and want to help. Make sure to tell your loved one directly that you care about her and that you are available and willing to help. For example, you could say, “I love you, and I want the best for you. I want to help you in any way I can.”
  • Ask what’s going on. Ask your loved one to talk about the situation and how he is feeling. A simple, “What’s troubling you?” will often get the ball rolling.
  • Legitimize feelings. Let your loved one know that you understand how he feels and that his feelings are perfectly normal. For example, you could say, “I can see you’re upset, and it makes a lot of sense that you’d feel that way.”
  • Use eye contact and body language to show care and concern. For example, you could nod to show that you’re listening or offer a hug to show you care. Oftentimes the most helpful thing we can say isn’t said with words.

On the flip side, some of the things we often do to provide emotional support are generally seen as unhelpful. Here are some things to avoid:

  • Don’t offer unsolicited advice. The most common error people make when attempting to provide emotional support is to offer unwanted advice. We tend to do this because we want to fix problems, but research shows that unless someone asks for advice, it’s often best not to offer it.
  • Don’t downplay feelings. Denying, ignoring, or criticizing your loved one’s feelings is generally hurtful. For example, resist the urge to say something like, “It’s not a big deal” or “You don’t need to be so upset!”
  • Don’t overdo it. Though it’s important to show your loved one that you care, try not to be too over-the-top in your concern. Give him room to breathe and process things on his own, too.

Though it’s not always easy to provide, emotional support is consistently rated as one of the most important components of our close relationships. By giving your loved ones good emotional support when they need it, you not only help them, but you keep your relationship strong.