Health issues can be some of the most challenging topics to broach with a loved one, especially when you feel like they're not taking good care of themselves. Should you tell them? Should you leave them to figure out what they need on their own? It can be tough to decide how, when, and where to have that conversation. You have to toe the line between expressing concern as a form of love and care and being intrusive and controlling—this isn't always easy!
There are various reasons to be concerned enough about a loved one's health to consider talking to them. You may notice that they seem weary, gain or lose weight too quickly, overstress, or feel sick more often than usual.
It's not easy watching a loved one's health or diet slip through the cracks. And even though it may seem like you're being a nag, it is sometimes crucial to help them navigate their way out of certain unhealthy traps. It's easy to neglect hard conversations because you don't want to upset your loved one or cause them to push you away defensively. Still, it is more important to find a way to help them stay healthy.
Cultivating this type of conversation will take courage and tact on your part, but once you get through to your loved one and begin to help, it will all be worth it. Topics like weight and diet can be particularly tough to bring up. So, how do you approach your loved one with compassion, understanding, and encouragement while still being able to communicate your genuine concerns? Here are some tips to help you out.
How to Initiate Communication With Your Loved One
The hardest part about having challenging conversations with a loved one can be figuring out how to start. Try to choose a time when you're relaxing together or maybe out to lunch or for a coffee. Creating a safe space to initiate conversation is a must. Start slow and try bringing up the issues you have noticed them feeling or exhibiting gently and empathetically.
Here are some do and don'ts for getting a conversation about your loved one's health started:
- When you enter a conversation like this, try to leave your emotions at the door. Becoming emotional may make them feel uncomfortable and close up. If the conversation takes an emotional turn, consider hitting the "pause" button and revisit it another time or later that day.
- Don't assume an accusatory stance. Try to avoid phrases like "you don't" and "you aren't" or "you have to." When you take an authoritative role, the conversation can seem like a lecture and may cause them to clam up and refuse to listen. Try using an understanding and empathetic tone when telling them what you have observed about their health. Make it clear that your primary goal here is to see them happy, healthy, and thriving.
- Ask questions instead of making statements when opening the conversation. It may help compel your loved ones out of their shell, and you might learn that they have noticed issues with their health already. Even if they have not thought as long and hard as you about the long-term risks, they may already be wondering what they can do to feel better and can't find a way to (or may not have thought to) ask for help and guidance.
How to Have the Conversation
Once you have started the conversation and have a dialogue going, there are many turns it can take. Hopefully, your loved one has also been considering what to do for their health, but it may turn out that they have been blind to their changes and choices or still in denial. Again, remember to keep your emotions in check as you continue the conversation.
Continue to coax them with questions and be aware of your tone. Even something as small as your body language could change the course of the conversation. Remember, you want to create a safe space to discuss their health because you love them and want to see them get better.
Here are some tips for handling topics or instances that may come up in the conversation once you begin:
- They may seem hesitant or scared to seek out help or talk about the issues coming up. If you find the conversation halting or becoming hard to continue because of this, try to put yourself in their shoes so you can understand why they feel this way. They may have seen a family member or loved one go through a traumatic health issue and are afraid to find themselves in the same shoes. Perhaps they have had a scary or traumatizing healthcare experience and are scared to see someone. If any of this is the case, lend a listening ear. With compassion and understanding, you may be able to help guide them to the right doctor or facility and even offer to go with them to their first visit. Don't be pushy, but make sure that they know that they have someone that will stand by their side.
- You may find that your loved one responds defensively to your efforts to help with their health at first. Again, it would help to approach them with compassion, not an authoritative tone or stance. Consider what may have triggered them to defend themselves and try to ease them into the idea that you're coming from a place of love and support.
- Continuously note their body language and reactions to your words throughout the conversation. Make sure to reassure them that you are there for them in any way they need you to be on their journey to becoming healthier. Also, make it clear that you will respect their autonomy and choices.
How to Offer Actionable Help Once Your Loved One Agrees to Optimize Their Health
Now that you have had an open and honest conversation with a loved one about their health and they have agreed that it is something they want to work on, how do you actually help them? The help you can offer here will depend on the situation, but there are many ways to guide them. Here are a few ideas:
If They Require a Doctor or Medical Exams
- Offer to help find the right doctor or sort through insurance questions if they are intimidated by the process.
- Offer to watch their kids, petsit, or give them a ride to the doctor's office if logistics are the issue here.
- Offer to accompany them to the visit if they feel afraid or hesitant. You can wait outside or go in, but ask what they prefer in this situation. Don't be pushy, but be ready to be there for a loved one if and when they need that extra support.
If They Need Mental Health Care
- Help them develop a list of questions or concerns about seeking help.
- Again, you can offer to watch their kids, petsit, or give them a ride to the doctor's office if logistics are a concern.
- Help them look for the right doctor and assist them with research if they feel overwhelmed.
- Consider buying them a book about mental health and different treatment options.
If They Need to Reevaluate Their Physical Fitness
- Offer to exercise with them or schedule walks to hang out.
- Invite them to your gym and show them that it is a safe space to meet goals.
- Get them a trial membership or training gift card to help them get started and learn about physical fitness.
If They Need to Make Dietary Changes
- Help them learn about healthier choices and offer to cook with them the next time you hang out.
- Buy them healthy cookbooks, or offer to help with some ideas.
- Offer to help research what professional help they might be able to utilize.
- Encourage them to see a dietitian who can help create a plan that will work well for them.
So, the takeaway here is that if you’ve noticed that a loved one is struggling with their health, there are many ways to have a conversation with them to help them decide to improve their health. It's important to stay respectful of boundaries and empathetic. But it's just as essential to help them live a happy, healthy life without overstepping, nagging, or blaming them for their problems. Keep an open mind and an open heart, and there’s a better chance your loved one receives your words and offers of help with open arms and an open mind.
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Amanda is a Nutrition Manager and Registered Dietitian with a Masters in Dietetics from Stephen F. Austin State University. Originally from south GA, she got her undergrad degree from Texas Tech University. Before joining Nutrisense, she worked at a hospital in Fort Worth, TX, for 4 years as a dietitian, counseling those living with HIV.