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How to Be a Supportive Friend in Time of Need

She's your BFF, and her teen is in trouble. We'll show you how to be a true friend in need.
friend in need

By the time her daughter landed in drug rehab at age 16, Leslie Cheney had grown used to all kinds of reactions to her wild child from family and friends, teachers and neighbors. But she wasn't ready for how differently people treated her. Suddenly she was confronted with unwanted counsel ("She needs more discipline") and Pollyanna predictions ("It's just a phase -- it'll pass before you know it"). On one level, Leslie, a mother of four in Fairfield, Connecticut, understood.

"It was pretty clear that people didn't really know what to say or do," she says. "And instead of asking me how they could help, they offered advice that didn't help at all." But Leslie found little comfort giving others the benefit of the doubt. In addition to being terrified for her daughter, she also felt cut off and alone at a time when she most needed support.

It's no surprise that adolescence can be a very rough passage -- for kids as well as their parents. Whether they're struggling with school, relationships, psychological disorders or substance abuse, "the problems today's tweens and teens face are enormous," says Rhonda David, clinical director of A Light of Hope, an outpatient treatment center in Santa Clarita, California. "And there are so many parents out there feeling like it's somehow their fault. They need support like never before." If you know someone in need, of course you'll want to lend a hand -- and be there in all the ways that matter.

  • Gain her confidence. It's natural for a parent whose child is in distress to pull away from friends, even close ones. "It may seem like she's backing off your relationship or being secretive, but she could simply be embarrassed and ashamed," says Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., a friendship researcher at New York University. The other possibility is that she's trying to guard her privacy. "No one wants word of their family's problems to spread like wildfire," says Levine. "The last thing she wants to worry about is gossip." As a friend, it's up to you to recognize and respect those feelings. If she doesn't return your calls, leave a few messages saying you are thinking of her and are there for her. It will be appreciated.

  • Resist judgment. Once your friend opens up, don't play the blame game. "We all want to believe that if we do a good job, our kids will turn out well," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of It Won't Happen to Me. "And if someone else's kid is struggling, we tend to assume the child has been poorly parented." So even if you've always felt your friend was too permissive or didn't spend enough time with her kid, push those thoughts aside. "At this point, the best thing to do is remind her that this setback isn't her fault -- and that she's doing the right thing by addressing it," says Levine.