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How to Navigate Family Disagreements on COVID-19 Risk

A grandmother talking to her granddaughter virtually
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You’ve been doing your part to keep your family safe by quarantining at home, washing your hands and cleaning household surfaces regularly. Most of your loved ones have been careful to practice social distancing and wear a mask in public settings.

But what about that relative who doesn’t practice the same level of care? If you’re stressed about their refusal to take the dangers of coronavirus seriously, those feelings are warranted. Differences in understanding the risk of COVID-19 have been straining family relationships since the pandemic began.

With the holidays approaching, these arguments might escalate if you don’t address them ahead of time. Here are 10 steps you can take to navigate family interactions when you disagree on the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19:

1. Recognize that people have different views on risk. The American Psychological Association (APA) says that people perceive the level of risk associated with a health hazard differently, depending on past experiences, age, gender and culture.

2. Reflect on and communicate your fears. Figure out where your fears lie to get to the heart of what bothers you when your loved one doesn’t share your concern about catching or spreading coronavirus. Discuss your feelings and fears with your loved one as the reasons why you want them to stay safe.

For example, you’re afraid of losing them if they were to get seriously sick. If they need to be hospitalized, you won’t be able to see them or help them. Reasons like these will be more effective than just demanding they agree with you.

3. Refer to trusted resources. It can be tough to convince a parent or a grandparent of your point of view when they think they know better than you. Friends and coworkers may not be keen on taking advice from someone they consider to be a peer. Instead, make your case about safety measures for COVID-19 using trusted resources from leading health experts, such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

4. Encourage your loved one to think of others. If they’re not concerned about their own health and safety, encourage them to think of others. Social distancing, wearing a mask in public settings and washing hands frequently can prevent coronavirus from spreading.

This is especially important given that when people are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, they can spread it to others even if they don’t have symptoms and don’t realize they have it. Encourage your family member to think about someone who may have a higher risk for serious illness if they get sick.

According to the CDC, people at increased risk for severe illness include older adults and people with certain medical conditions, such as:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • COPD
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity

Most of us know someone at risk for severe illness, whether that’s a neighbor, friend or community member. You can read the CDC’s updates on the scientific evidence for conditions that raise the risk for severe illness here.

5. Find a quiet time to establish some common ground. Try to open a discussion at a calm time, not during the heat of an argument. If you do find yourself in a debate that is going around in circles, suggest taking a break and try again later when you’ve both had more time to reflect on things.

6. Speak kindly and listen. Even if you’re feeling angry or frustrated with your loved one, speak with kindness and empathy. Ask questions and give them an opportunity to share their thinking. Listen to their views with an open ear and try to understand things from their perspective.

7. Use stories rather than statistics. Research shows that a good story can be more persuasive than facts and figures. Find out if your family member knows of a friend, coworker or celebrity diagnosed with coronavirus and use that story to support your point.

8. Stay connected in ways that protect your comfort zone. Instead of getting together in person, suggest connecting by phone or video call and agree not to talk about the pandemic. Consider dropping off a care package of baked goods or groceries to their doorstep if you live close by. You can also have a meal together over video chat.

Reduce risk and establish boundaries in advance. If an in-person gathering is unavoidable, there are several ways to manage the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19 at family events. Start by suggesting the gathering happens outside, so you can ensure social distancing, the CDC recommends.

9. Consider getting together at a time that doesn’t warrant a meal. If food is still a must, recommend everyone bring their own so that sharing food and utensils doesn’t become a source of stress and anxiety. Or, plate the meal in advance rather than serving it family-style.

Establishing your boundaries in advance will go a long way to eliminating friction when you attend in-person. Tell family members that you are looking forward to seeing them and will be wearing masks, sitting six feet apart, bringing your own food and limiting the length of time you attend. That way there are no surprises when you arrive.

10. Let it go. You can make a strong case for staying safe. Ultimately, though, you can’t control someone else’s decisions and behavior. If the strain and guilt of trying to maintain a relationship with a family member who refuses to respect your perspective continue to bother you, it may be time to take a break from communications for a while. You deserve to protect your own mental well-being.

We’re Here to Help

Check out our free mental health resources on the Coronavirus Resource Hub. We’re dedicated to making it easy to get the support you need — whether that means staying informed, talking with a counselor or seeing a doctor via virtual visit from home.

A mental health professional can help you learn how to cope with anxieties and fears about the future. Feel free to request an appointment with one of our mental health experts. You can count on us for undivided support that will guide you down a path of confidence and renewed strength.

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