This week's blog comes from Paul Dalsky, father, teacher, and writer.
I bet you've experienced a time when a friend, family member, coworker, or neighbor needed support. Maybe they were going through some physical pain. Maybe they were experiencing a traumatic event. Maybe they realized they were struggling with a mental health issue, which we're undertrained to handle (both within ourselves and within others). Have you been tempted to offer advice? Commiserate? Affirm? Listen? Not reach out in fear of being a bother? What's the right response? Is there a right response? I have some thoughts.
I'm a high school English teacher, so I interact with 16-18-year-olds daily. One of the main tenants in the "How to Be a Teenager" handbook is as follows: "I already know everything. I don't need help." As adults, teacher or not, we tend to doubt that tenant and counter it with one from the "How to Be an Adult" handbook that states, "You don't know everything, even when you're an adult."
I experience this as a parent, too. It doesn't matter how many times I tell my 2 and a half-year-old that if he doesn't want me to change his diaper, he could sit on the toilet. He will still whine and squirm while I change him but refuse to sit on the toilet. It seems that toddlers write the handbook that teenagers use, and teenagers edit it as time goes on.
It's easy to understand why a toddler doesn't want help, and we all remember when we were 17 and didn't think anyone's opinion mattered except our girlfriend's. This brings us back to the original question: What's the right response for someone who needs support? My answer is persistent affirmations.
For a toddler, this means saying, "It's okay that you're mad. Let's find a good way to be when we're mad." For a teenager, it means saying, "I know COVID has made this year all sorts of ridiculous. It's okay if you're not enjoying school right now." To an adult with depression, it means saying, "I value our friendship." Sometimes our friends don't want advice or commentary or commiserating or silence. They want some positive vibes.
Affirmations are the easy part. We can all be kind. It's the persistence that is hard. Our own lives get in the way and we forget to reach out.
What if there was a way to send affirmations to people you love that lasted longer than the moment it took to speak to them or send them a text?
That's why I have tangibles around my classroom. Students can see "i belong" and "i am loved" in everyday places. Yes, I need to keep saying these affirmations aloud to them, but just looking around the room can be a reminder that they belong.
You could send your friend who is starting a new job a tangible that says "you are brave." You could send your neighbor who lost a loved one a tangible that says "you are strong." Give your coworker a tangible, and they'll see it when they open their laptop or when they hit their alarm clock in the early morning hours.
Affirmations are great, but persistent affirmations help people know it wasn't a one-time compliment; it was a truth that needed to be spoken.