What If I Say the Wrong Thing? Caregiver Tips for Supporting a Loved one with Depression
November 29, 2021
Communicating is hard, depression makes it harder. During our “What If I Say the Wrong Thing? Tips for Communicating When Your Loved One Is Depressed” webinar, you asked great questions! Because we didn’t have time to answer them all, we asked presenter Dr. Chris Segrin to provide strategies for your remaining questions.
Is your loved one seeming particularly connected with you at the moment? Attentive? Open to suggestion? In agreement on other issues? More talkative than usual? Those are good indicators that this could be a smart time to have a difficult conversation.
Start the conversation with a soft tone and begin gradually. Perhaps it could grow out of a conversation in progress when you can seize upon the opportunity in the moment when things are going well.
Also, remember this: another person’s misery does not necessarily mean that it is a bad time to have a conversation. Many people are most amenable to or interested in change when they are feeling their worst. If you can hold their attention and engage them in a dialogue, you may help them find hope and see a clear pathway to something better. Don’t rule out a meaningful conversation just because your loved one may not be feeling their very best.
Be consistent and be persistent. If your suggestions and advice are ignored, you may need to take a break from the conversation when the topic comes up in the future (e.g., “We’ve already talked about this and I told you that…”) and leave it at that. Don’t dissect the issue or talk in circles.
In such cases, be very clear about how this dynamic makes you feel. Remind the person that you are there for them whenever they are ready to talk. At the same time, you have to take care of yourself and live your life, even when your loved one is not engaged in it with you.
Consistency and persistence is best. Remind your loved one that you don’t see things that way. Explain why and how you feel positive. Your positive state of mind may eventually influence the other person. Above all else, do not allow yourself to get pulled into a downward spiral of negativity. Know your boundaries and stop the conversation before they are crossed. Step away to ground yourself.
There is a major difference between disagreement and disrespect. You don’t have to agree with everything that someone says in order to respect them and show that you care about them. Sometimes it helps to confront and challenge them because you care about them and what their negativity is doing to them and to you and your family.
In severe cases, you may need to talk about day-to-day ups and downs with someone else in your social network who can listen and converse with you in a more positive tone. That way, you can be taking care of yourself and your needs so that you can be of assistance to your loved one.
This requires exquisite judgment. There are times when some people are indeed better left alone. Then there are times when they can be “left alone” but still should be in the presence as others (e.g., in the same house). And then there are times when someone should literally remain in the same room as them.
Use your past experiences with them to help make these decisions. Ask yourself these questions:
- In the past, how have they fared when you just left them alone?
- Can you leave them alone for a short while and then go back and try to engage them (e.g., “I’m going to the store. Do you want to come with me?”)?
- Is there someone else who might be good company for them for a change of pace?
Do not get discouraged when they reject these bids for interaction. You are still sending a VERY important message: you are there and you care. Even if they act like they don’t care and don’t take you up on the offer, they will take note. Also, there may be “phases” when there is more distance (physically and psychologically) between the two of you than at other times. Hopefully, those are brief and temporary and the two of you will reengage as their symptoms improve.
It may also help to break the process of change down into baby steps. People who say their life can’t change are often narrowly focused. Try to engage them in small things that they can change in their lives (e.g., “Do you want to go shopping for some different bath towels?” or “How about we go for a walk in the park for some exercise and fresh air every weekend?”). Showing people that such changes are possible can jump-start the process of making more substantial changes.
If they are genuinely angry, that is probably not the best time to engage them. When you do, remind them that you, like all human beings, are 100% entitled to your own happiness. You don’t need their permission to be happy and they don’t need yours. Let them know that you would like for both of you to be happy. However, their unhappiness is not your responsibility and you don’t need to get down in the emotional gutter with them. You will not be of any greater use to them if you spend your time commiserating with them.
The idea here is that you let them know that the happiness ship is going to set sail and you have a right to take that cruise for your own welfare. You’d love it if they would join you. However, if they refuse, tell them: That’s not going to stop me from pursuing my own happiness.
If someone needs a helping hand, support them. Be empathetic, but do not join other people in their irrational or extreme views of their self, the world, and the future (and remember that these are usually expressions of their depression). There are decent people, the world is indeed a decent place, and the future is bright. You have to show them that you believe that. Be a rock: model optimism and happiness.
- Do you feel overwhelmed? Take our Caregiver Stress Test and get tips for managing the stress in your life.
- Keep learning about the process of change when your loved one has depression! Watch our Stages of Change video series.
- Remember that you play an important role in your family’s wellness. Review what your role is as the family caregiver.
Chris Segrin, PhD, is Professor and Department Head of the Department of Communication, and Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Family Studies, at the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. As a behavioral scientist specializing in interpersonal relationships and mental health, Dr. Segrin’s research focuses on social skills, relationship development and satisfaction, and problems such as depression, anxiety, loneliness, and marital distress. He teaches classes in interpersonal communication, nonverbal communication, persuasion, and marriage and family. Dr. Segrin is author of the books Interpersonal Processes in Psychological Problems and Family Communication and was editor of the journal Communication Theory. He earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin.