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How to Handle the Holidays When Your Family Doesn't Agree on COVID-19

covid holidays
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistNovember 03, 2020

Holiday gatherings are a wildcard for many of us, even without a global pandemic. Conflict can arise on any number of topics, like politics, religion, and whether or not to brine the turkey. And now there’s the potential for strong disagreement about COVID-19 precautions.

Some of these disagreements are intense, as people vary in where they draw the line between being safe and getting back to living our lives. We might be surprised our family members are getting together at all; or, on the other end of the spectrum, we might be surprised that they’re insisting on wearing masks around us. Add differing political alliances to the mix, and there are likely to be some challenging family gatherings.

This is a time more than ever to extend one another all the kindness and empathy we can muster. It might help to call on the spirit of whatever holiday we’re celebrating to find an extra dose of compassion: the gratitude of Thanksgiving, the wonder of Christmas, the miracle of Hanukkah, the unity and faith of Kwanzaa.

When navigating the holidays, these principles may be helpful.

1. Set Clear Expectations

Being clear about social distancing protocol is especially important if you’re the one hosting a holiday celebration. It’s easier to graciously exit someone else’s home if others won’t follow guidelines that feel safe to you, but not so easy when it’s your house! State your expectations as clearly as possible. For example, “We would love nothing more than to hug every one of you, but we will be keeping 6 feet apart at our gathering.”

Similarly, if you know that other family members prefer to be more cautious in their social contact, let them know what the setup will be, such as, “We’ll be eating side by side in close proximity at our dining room table.” That way there are fewer difficult surprises for you and your guests.

2. Be Kind and Firm

When members of your family have different plans from yours, you can assert yourself in a way that respects both their needs and yours. Be clear about what you’re comfortable with and what you’ll be doing. If family members press you to justify your choices, you don’t really need to convince them that your position is valid. You can simply reiterate your decision, without excessive explanation or excuses.

3. Assume the Best

When our choices conflict with someone else’s, it’s easy to make ego-driven assumptions about their motive. If they’re the only family member wearing a mask, we might feel annoyed that they’re “another virtue-signaling liberal,” when really they might be concerned about the elderly patients they care for.

If someone refuses our request that everyone wears masks, we might think they’re selfish and don’t care about others when perhaps they have PTSD that can be triggered if their mouth and nose are covered.

We can preemptively decide to make the most generous possible explanation for others’ behavior, just as we might hope they would do for us.

4. Beware a War of Wills

We often get invested in an argument that feels like a showdown, and we really want to win. But sadly, with family fights, “winning” looks a lot like losing. Notice if you’re saying things like, “But it’s the principle!” Our ego and our need to be right often hide behind our principles.

Aim to be magnanimous instead. That doesn’t mean you should sacrifice safety or common sense. Just be selective about which battles are worth fighting.

5. Practice Acceptance

I once found myself in an argument with my brother leading up to a family wedding. The tension I felt seemed wrong for such a joyous occasion. And then I realized that much of my distress was coming from my insistence that the conflict “shouldn’t be happening.” When I accepted that it was OK to have this conflict -- and actually pretty normal for family weddings -- it was no longer such a big deal.

So as we head into the holidays, we can practice consciously opening to whatever lies before us. We might not want there to be any anger or disagreements, but we’ll suffer less by not resisting our reality.

Consider asking yourself what your intentions are for the time you spend with family. Who do you want to be in this holiday season, in this year unlike any before? How do you want to let these family members know you hold them dear -- whether or not you always agree? And how will you maintain your integrity as you balance sometimes competing commitments?

Whatever this season has in store for you, I wish you and your loved ones lots of love and good cheer.





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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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