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How To Deal With Family Disagreements About COVID Over The Holidays

How to deal with family disagreements about covid on the holidays 11/10/20
Image by Evgenij Yulkin / Stocksy
November 12, 2020

Navigating the holidays may be tricky this year if you have family members with different ideas about what is and isn't safe amid COVID-19. Your health and safety are important, but when family emotions are involved, and the prospect of not going home for the holidays becomes a reality, it can become difficult to maintain your boundaries.

To figure out how to deal with the new normal of holidays, mbg consulted family therapists who offered tips for navigating these tricky family dynamics over the holidays.

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What to do if your family doesn't take COVID seriously. 

It's natural to feel anxious and out of control if your family refuses to take COVID-19 health precautions seriously. "In this situation, focus on what you can control: your behavior and choices," therapist Jennie Marie Battistin, M.A., LMFT, tells mbg. 

You'll also benefit if you can find ways to make peace with the fact that you can't control other people's choices. Here are a few ways to shift your perspective to make that possible, recommended by marriage and family counselor Lisa Marie Bobby, LMFT, BCC

  • Instead of thinking: If only they'd quarantine for two weeks before Thanksgiving, then we could all be together.
  • Think this: My family members feel that going about their usual day-to-day activities in the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving is more important than celebrating a traditional Thanksgiving Day with the whole family. They have the right to feel that, and I have the right to choose not to participate in a situation that feels unsafe for me.
  • Instead of thinking: My dad should be wearing a mask because he's going to get sick and then get mom sick, and she might not make it. 
  • Think this: My parents are adults who are competent enough to assess their levels of safety and make their own choices about how to protect themselves, just like I do.
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While the initial thoughts may be more natural, and the secondary thoughts may not change the situation, Bobby says, "They will immediately make you feel more at peace and more empowered to focus on your own health, wellness, and boundaries...and leave others to do the same." 

How to set boundaries with your family over the holidays. 

This holiday season is going to look different for a lot of people—if you have to spend them alone, well, you're not alone.

"If you encounter the guilt trip approach, set a firm boundary that it is not acceptable to attempt to guilt you into attending, just as you are not trying to guilt them into accepting your beliefs," Battistin says. 

Boundaries should be firm, clear, and loving, she says. Here's an example:

  • I love you, and I'm sad that we have some key differences in how to approach health precautions over the holidays. We all have to do what we believe is best. For me, I need [enter your needs] to feel safe and healthy during the holidays, and I accept that your choices may be different from mine. I won't be able to attend this occasion, but I would love to video chat, if possible, to participate during gift-giving, dinner, etc.
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If you've already traveled to the family member's house without realizing beforehand that you wouldn't be comfortable, it's OK to leave. Before heading out, let your family know you're uncomfortable with and disappointed about the lack of safety precautions and that you look forward to seeing them for the next holiday, Battistin says.

"Always convey this with love, rather than judgment," she suggests. 

What to keep in mind if you are attending. 

If you do decide to plan the holidays with your family despite disagreements, you can suggest creative ways to gather that are lower risk. Some ideas and recommendations from Battistin: 

  • Bring or rent an outdoor heater and keep the gathering outdoors. 
  • Stay socially distant and wear masks. 
  • Let people know you're not comfortable hugging, holding hands during prayers, or standing too close. 
  • Bring your own food, drinks, and cutlery.
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Even if you're at your family's home, you can still pass on certain gatherings, events, activities, or meals that you don't feel comfortable with and only participate in the ones that feel right for you. You can use similar boundary-setting language as described above. Just remember to be firm, clear, and loving while stating your needs or declining on activities, as Battistin recommends.

The bottom line.

At the end of the day, all you can do is express your concerns in love and know that it's OK to decline an invitation if your family still isn't willing to compromise. "Your family will then experience the natural consequences of their decisions, which is that they won't get to be with you in person this year," Bobby says. Try to make plans ahead of time so that you're still able to make other plans that do meet your safety expectations.

If you do attend, you can still set boundaries to make yourself feel comfortable and safe. When needed, practice shifting your thoughts toward accepting your lack of control over others to help yourself feel more at peace and able to enjoy your time with your family.

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