Help!

Being a good natured, well meaning chap, James likes to be helpful. We’ve had a fair few interesting discussions around this, as he’s learned about the issue. Like most children, James started out with play helping – and frequently that’s entirely unhelpful. I wondered about letting him do that, but opted to very gently suggest that helping in an actually helpful way would be more use. He turned out to be totally open to this. Since then he’s become really good at responding to requests for help, and asking what help is needed rather than assuming he knows.

It’s very easy, when trying to help, to end up swamping, disempowering or depressing the person you meant to assist. It’s an easy time to accidentally patronise, or make the recipient feel that they’re not doing well enough as it is. “Is there anything I can do to help?” is much better than “Let me do that for you.” Or worse yet, “I can do that properly.” How we offer help shows our respect, or lack thereof for people.

If a person needs help because they are in difficulty, it means pretty much by definition that they have lost control of something. That might be through ill health, misfortune, injury, job loss, or any number of small or vast setbacks. The one thing a person in crisis needs more than anything else, is not to lose more autonomy. Genuine help means not taking more power from that person. It’s always easier to see the solutions to other people’s problems than our own, but rushing in with too much enthusiasm can do more harm than good. ‘Help’ that denies a person choices, or disempowers them in any way, is not useful.

If you want to help, with anything or anyone, then begin by asking what you can do. Don’t assume you know what they need, or even that you know what the problem is without checking. Ask what the other person needs, how you can support them, what they would like. Be willing to listen. Unless they are in a coma or otherwise totally unable to act on their own behalf, don’t act for them without consent, that can add to distress. Give a distressed person as much time as you can to speak for themselves and make their own choices. It’s not just a matter of fixing whatever the short term issues are, consider their longer term needs, dignity and sense of self.

If we rush in too fast, we can cause more harm than good. It’s so easy to railroad a person who is already in distress. The loss of control that goes with crisis creates fear, anxiety, and can make a person feel they do not know how to cope. Coming in and rushing someone can increase the feeling of lost control and make it harder for them to make good choices. To give true aid, it must be offered on the terms of the one who needs it, not on the terms of the ‘helper’ or what we do can easily make a bad situation worse.