A Simple Strategy for Helping a Tearful Patient

It has happened to all of us – a patient starts crying during an appointment. When this happens, we often feel unsure of what to do. We may feel uncomfortable, wishing the patient would just stop crying, or that we could leave the room. We may feel terribly for the anguish of our patient but are unsure how to act.

How we handle these moments can make or break an effective, trusting clinical relationship. We do not want the patient to feel dismissed, strange, or embarrassed. Likewise, we often would like to feel more comfortable and confident in how we handle tears and have the skill to genuinely help during these difficult moments.

Here is an adaptable step-by-step strategy to handle a tearful patient:

1. Allow the patient a few moments to cry

Then, instead of looking directly at the patient (which could be intrusive) or up (which could look impatient), look slightly down. This allows the patient some respectful space for tears.

2. Take note of your own body language and reaction

If you’re uncomfortable with the emotion, the muscles in your body may tense. Try to relax them. If your breathing is shallow, take a couple full breaths. Keep an open body posture – uncross your arms and legs – and breathe deeply.

3. Place a box of tissue within arm’s reach of the patient

This allows the patient the choice of using a tissue. Placing the box nearby, instead of handing loose tissue, is often interpreted as a supportive gesture, rather than relaying a message that you’d like the patient to stop crying.

4. Respond verbally

One way to respond is by using 2 simple statements and 1 question:

  • Statement of empathy, for example: “This is really difficult.” Or “I’m sorry – this is upsetting.”
  • Statement of validation, for example: “This is a challenging situation for many patients.” Or “You have every reason to be upset.”
  • Question about needs, for example: “How can I help?” Or “Do you need a moment, or is there more information I could provide?”

5. Follow up with support information

Provide your patient a list of appropriate resources including, support groups, quality informational websites, online communities, and a few psychotherapeutic professionals and/or organizations with expertise in your patient population.

These simple steps can be part of a dynamic strategy to successfully manage highly emotional situations. These steps are adaptable to specific situations or patient needs. With practice, this basic strategy can help improve your confidence and respectfully support your patient in the midst of strong emotions.