A Guide to Helping Your Friends Open Up

By Sophia, an 18-year-old Teen Link volunteer phone worker

When You’re Worried About a Friend…

It can feel very nerve wracking, reaching out to someone you’re concerned about who isn’t opening up to you. But before you initiate a difficult conversation, the first thing to consider is why they haven’t approached you.

If you think it’s because they don’t feel comfortable talking to you yet, it’s important that you build some trust first. You can begin by doing more unstructured mental health check-ins, spending more informal time with them, and casually affirming that you’re a safe person for them to come to with anything. If you already have a close relationship, perhaps they’re scared of being a burden and believe they should just power through it alone. Or maybe they think they’re fine and don’t need any help. If one of the latter is the case, it could be best for you to initiate the conversation yourself.

When You’re Having the Conversation…

Find a safe, private place where you’ll have plenty of time to talk uninterrupted. If you’re unsure of how to begin the conversation, you can start by telling them the reasons for your concern. For example, you could say something along the lines of “Hey! So, I’ve noticed that you haven’t been sleeping or eating much lately and that you seem a lot quieter than usual. Is everything ok?” This gives your friend an easy launching point to open up. It also shows that you’ve been paying attention, so even if in the moment they choose not to share, they still know that you care about them and they can come to you in the future.

When a Friend Comes to You…

If someone reaches out to you and confides that they’re going through a hard time or asks for your help, it can be hard to know how to respond. One thing you can start with is telling them that you’re grateful they approached you, and that you’re more than willing to support them. People are often afraid to seek help because they worry their peers will treat them like a burden or dismiss them—validating your friend’s emotions and affirming your support can help them feel more comfortable with opening up. You can also tell them that you won’t judge them or betray their confidence, unless you think they’re in danger or might hurt themself or others.

After assuring them that you’re a safe person to talk to, the most important thing for you to do is to listen. Give them space to rant, release emotions, disclose secrets, and verbally process whatever is on their mind. As they talk, you can nod along, validate what they’re feeling, ask questions, and—when they’re ready—respond with empathy. Try not to get into problem-solving mode. Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is just listen and not try to fix the problem.

When You’re Having the Conversation…

What you say and what your friend needs from you will depend on the situation.

Perhaps they are simply seeking someone who will listen and help them feel like they’re not alone. In this case, you can react to their story, give them your perspective—if they want it—tell them how much they mean to you, and reiterate how you’re always there to talk. If they’re in a heightened emotional state, you can also try to soothe them or ground them in the present. You can take some deep breaths with them, get them water or a snack, and help them focus on what is happening, not what might happen. It can be easy to spiral, getting lost in the past and consumed by anxiety for the future.

Or maybe they want you to actively provide advice and problem solve with them. After all, getting another opinion on a complex issue or difficult decision can be incredibly enlightening. Plus, coming up with an action plan can be a great way to make a stressful situation feel more manageable.

However, it’s important that they still maintain control over their situation. If you unintentionally exert pressure on your friend to do something they don’t feel comfortable with, they may end up feeling more alone and misunderstood. It’s also important that throughout this process you know your boundaries. Being a good friend does not mean that you have to sacrifice your own mental well-being or life stability to help someone else out.

Finally, it’s alright to feel overwhelmed or like you don’t know what to do—these are both normal responses and they don’t make you a bad person! When in doubt, avoid cliché responses or empty comforts—like, “Everything happens for a reason.” Instead, speak honestly, with love and care. Think about how you can make what your friend is facing feel more manageable, and what you can say to make your friend feel valued. It’s 100% ok to say “I don’t know” when you feel out of your element. If the situation becomes too much for you to handle alone, ask if you can incorporate another person from their support network—like a friend, parent, teacher, or coach—or if they’d be open to connecting with someone like a Teen Link Youth Crisis Specialist. You’re still doing a great job of supporting your friend, even if you’re helping them find someone with more resources or lived experiences. When in doubt or if you ever feel truly concerned for their well-being or your own, always reach out to a trusted adult.

If you are or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, there are free, 24/7 services that can help.

To learn more about Teen Link and how to become a volunteer, visit www.teenlink.org.