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What to Do When a Friend Confides In You About Something Terrible

By April 15, 2019September 21st, 2020Social Difficulties

In my novel Reinventing Hannah, Hannah’s best friend Molly accidentally betrays her trust after Hannah builds up her strength and courage and confides in her that she was raped. Molly blames their other friend for what happened, confronts her loudly in the cafeteria, and accidentally broadcasts Hannah’s story to the entire school, leaving Hannah feeling betrayed, hurt, and angry.

Obviously this isn’t the best way to deal with it if your friend confides in you about something terrible that happened to them. But what SHOULD you do instead?

What to Do When A Friend Confides in You


Before we get started, I need to remind you that this blog is for general informational purposes only and isn’t meant as advice about anybody’s particular situation. If you have questions about what to do after your friend confides in you about something specific, please don’t rely on this or any other blog you find on the Internet! Contact a therapist or life coach for help.

It can be hard to figure out how to be a good friend if your friend confides in you about something terrible like being the victim of a crime, being abused, or other serious issues.

It probably took a lot for your friend to trust you. So how can you avoid abusing their trust?

The first thing you need to do is realize that your friend doesn’t need you to fix things for them.

When someone tells us about something terrible in their lives, our first impulse is often to rattle off a list of possible solutions to their problem. Get therapy. Tell your mom. Read this article on Buzzfeed about this exact issue.

But that’s not what your friend needs — at least not right away. In fact, it can make it worse to jump too quickly to solutions because then your friend might feel that you’re taking over or that you don’t think they can figure things out on their own.

If your first impulse is to give your friend a list of things they need to do, stop. The last thing they need when they finally work up the courage to trust you is homework. Click To Tweet

What they DO need is someone to listen, understand, and most importantly, believe them.

How to listen to a friend in need.

You might not think you need to learn how to listen. It seems like an obvious skill, right? But there’s more to listening than just hearing someone’s words, and the more difficult someone’s struggle is, the more they need you to listen fully.

The first step to listening is focusing on the person. Don’t listen with your mind half on something else or browse social media while listening. If you do that, not only will you miss part of the message, but you’ll also make your friend feel unheard and unimportant.

When a friend confides In you about something terrible, put down your phone

Put your phone down and really focus on the person you’re talking to when they are trying to tell you something important to them.

This can be hard to do, especially when your friend is telling you something upsetting. Do your best and if you accidentally lose focus, apologize and ask them to repeat what they just said.

Use non-verbal cues to help show that you’re listening.

Have you ever noticed how on TV, therapists are always nodding as their patients are talking? This is a bona fide technique to help people feel heard. When you nod every once in a while, it helps show you haven’t checked out. Of course, this only works if you’re actually listening. Don’t use nodding as a substitute for paying attention. That won’t help anyone, and your friend might get upset if they think you’re only pretending to listen to them.

Summarize what you’ve heard.

The hardest part of listening to someone in crisis is responding to them. In normal conversation, there’s often a give-and-take that you can’t do with someone who is having a crisis. You often respond without thinking and might change the subject, talk about something you have in common with the person, or tell a related story.

But when a friend confides in you about something terrible that happened, they need the focus to be entirely on them, including in your responses. So instead of responding the way you normally might, you need to show them that you’ve heard them. You can do this in a few ways.

  • Summarize what they’ve told you. (“You had a fight with your boyfriend after he said you never do your share around the house.”)
  • Summarize how you think your friend feels. (“I bet you were angry when he said that!”)
  • Ask a question. It’s best to use open-ended questions, which are questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. (“How did you feel when he said that?”)

Most importantly, don’t be afraid of making mistakes! Your friend will correct you if you get something wrong and even if they’re annoyed, they probably also appreciate that you’re trying to listen.

Your friend needs your support more than anything.

It’s HARD to confide in anyone about something terrible! When your friend takes that step, they might be afraid you’ll reject them or blame them for what happened.

The most important thing you can do, besides listen, is reassure them that this isn’t the case. A simple statement like, “I want you to know I believe you” or “This doesn’t change how I feel about you” can do wonders. If your friend is sharing that they were abused in some way, it’s also helpful to tell them that you don’t think this is their fault.

Whatever else you do, thank your friend for confiding in you and reassure them that you don’t think any less of them. They need that encouragement more than anything.

I Really Can’t Give Advice?

You can’t give advice — unless your friend wants it.

Timing is everything, so you don’t want to be too quick to jump to advice giving for the reasons we already talked about. But once your friend has said everything there is to say, if you do feel there’s something you can say to help, ask for permission to give advice.  (“Is it okay if I make a suggestion?”)

This helps your friend feel more in control and gives them the option to refuse advice. If they are not in a place to hear advice right now, respect that! They may be more open later, and you don’t want to push them away by not respecting their boundaries.

Breaking a Friend’s Confidence

In general, what your friends tell you should stay between you. But there’s a few situations where it might be better to tell someone so that your friend can get the help they need.

In general, you don’t want to break your friend’s confidence unless you think they are in immediate danger of getting seriously hurt (or hurting someone else.) In these cases, it’s best to tell a parent, teacher, or significant other — someone who can do something to help your friend.

Here’s some situations where this might apply:

  • Your friend tells you they are suicidal. It’s best to err on the side of caution — you don’t want to lose your friend. But remember that this doesn’t have to mean calling 911! If you think your friend might attempt suicide, you may want to tell someone who can help, like a parent or teacher. You can also call a suicide hotline for more input about how to support your friend and what to do if you think they’re going to hurt themselves. Similarly, in the unlikely event that a friend confides in you that they’re planning to harm others, you want to err on the side of caution and tell someone who can intervene before something tragic happens.
  • Your friend tells you they are being physically abused. In most cases, you need to stay out of your friends’ relationship, even if you disapprove of their significant other. But if your friend’s partner is hitting them, the violence won’t stop on its own and could even turn deadly. Only your friend can decide to leave a bad situation or whether to press charges, but you might want to tel a parent or other person you trust about the abuse so they can help.

If you do betray a friend’s confidence, you can expect they’ll be hurt and angry and may even end the friendship. That’s why it’s important to only do this if you feel it’s the only way to protect your friend from seriously hurting themselves or other people.

Have you ever been in a situation where a friend confided in you about something terrible? What did you do?

Share in the comments!

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