For many families and friends, this holiday season will mark the first year of reunification since the pandemic began. But even in a joyous moment, families and friends may find themselves navigating difficult conversations about COVID-19 vaccination and safety precautions.
“This holiday season will be unlike any other,” Danielle Roeske, PsyD, vice president of residential services at Newport Healthcare, told Verywell via email.
Not everyone may agree with the people they’re planning to see this season, so it could be useful to think ahead about how you’re going to respond if not everyone you’re planning on seeing is vaccinated.
“A good number of us are bound to encounter different viewpoints on the vaccination,” Roeske adds. “It’s important to set boundaries for yourself, even during the holidays.”
Jesse Kahn, LCSW-R, CST director and therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City added that when you figure out what you’re comfortable with, you can communicate those boundaries in a respectful way.
“It’s tempting to tell everyone what you want them to do to make you comfortable, but unfortunately whether or not someone else gets vaccinated or wears a mask isn’t within our power to control,” Kahn told Verywell. But by setting boundaries you can control your level of safety.
How Can You Gather Safely?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) set forth a few general recommendations for gathering this holiday season, stating that you should:
- Protect those not yet eligible for vaccination such as young children by getting yourself and other eligible people around them vaccinated.
- Wear well-fitting masks over your nose and mouth if you are in public indoor settings if you are not fully vaccinated. Even those who are fully vaccinated should wear a mask in public indoor settings in communities with substantial to high transmission.
- Outdoors is safer than indoors.
- Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.
- If you are sick or have symptoms, don’t host or attend a gathering.
- Get tested if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or have close contact with someone who has COVID-19.
Set and Communicate Boundaries
Disagreements about vaccination are about more than just conversation; real physical consequences can result, such as a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Because of the risks involved, Lindsay Henderson, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York and director of psychological services at Amwell, told Verywell that there’s no reason to feel guilty for setting boundaries.
Some questions to ask yourself ahead of time, Roeske said, include: Will you attend events where some family members are not vaccinated? If you do attend, how will you handle potentially heated discussions about the vaccine?
Also, Kahn added, what is your safety limit? Are you okay being indoors with other unmasked vaccinated people? What about asking unvaccinated people to test for COVID-19 before they gather with you?
“First, figure out your personal comfort level with being around that person or family member,” Henderson said. “You may feel pressured to participate or gather in ways that you don’t agree with but it’s important that you stay true to yourself in these situations.”
For example, you can offer to meet outdoors only and/or ask people attending to get tested before. You can also try planning to stay for a limited period of time, such as only for appetizers. Steps like these can help ease tension while letting everyone know your plan of action and boundaries ahead of time.
“Small adjustments like this can go a long way in ensuring you feel comfortable with your decisions,” she said. “Compromises can work great.”
Knowing ahead of time what you are and are not comfortable with can help manage expectations and make for a more enjoyable get-together, Roeske added.
“Once you identify your boundaries, it can be helpful to anticipate how your family may respond or how you will handle those particular conversations,” she added.
Steering the Conversation
After setting and communicating boundaries, there’s no reason to talk about COVID-19 or the vaccines if you don’t want to. But if you’re open to having potential conflict-based or tense conversations, Kahn said, go for it. But also accept that you may not change anyone else’s mind.
“Going in with the idea of changing someone else’s opinion or convincing them otherwise is not going to lead to an enjoyable holiday,” Henderson added. Let people know you have different beliefs or opinions if you want—but that after a certain point, you’d rather focus on enjoying each other’s company.
Phrases to rehearse beforehand, Roeske said, to redirect the focus if it’s getting in the way of enjoying your time together could include:
- I’m not comfortable talking about this.
- I don’t want to get into an argument—let’s talk about something else.
- This is personal to me—let’s not talk about it right now.
- Kahn added that having a “standby phrase” ready can help you feel prepared.
- “Something like, ‘I know we have opposite opinions on this topic, and I’d prefer to avoid an argument. While we’re together, let’s talk about something we can all enjoy,'” he said. “Offer a new topic, and carry on the conversation in a new direction.”
What This Means For You
If you need help navigating conversations about COVID-19 vaccination during the holidays, check out Verywell’s healthy conversations coach, in English and Spanish. By using this tool, you can practice having an empathetic conversation about the vaccines with your loved one.
Having Empathetic Discussions
Overwhelming evidence supports vaccination against COVID-19, so there’s no need to shy away from a conversation about it.2 But you should be sensitive in how you communicate on the subject.
If you do want to have a conversation about vaccination and masks, be ready to possibly encounter misinformation or disinformation coming from a friend or family member. Whether or not you’ll change their mind, you can always try, while coming from an empathetic place.
“When you are presented with misinformation, it’s often our first instinct to correct someone,” Roeske said, but this can just lead to tension or even fighting. “Focus on what you can control in the situation—your own actions. In some situations, it may be best to acknowledge that person’s viewpoint and simply move on, or refrain from engaging.”
If it does feel safe to engage, one phrase Henderson recommends when responding to erroneous information is, “That is not what I understand; would you be interested in hearing what I’ve read?”
“This provides an opportunity to share an article or study from a medical journal to not only support your opinion but also to serve as an educational tool,” she added.
Kahn said that it’s good to keep in mind that people may be accidentally spreading misinformation. “If someone says something you know to be incorrect, talk with them to see where the disconnect is happening,” he said. You can ask questions regarding:
- Where they got their information
- How they are interpreting the information
- Where you seek out your information
Once you have more information, he added, “you can redirect them with something like, ‘I heard that as well, but after a bit of reading I learned it wasn’t true.”‘ Then you can share the information you have gathered instead.
But again, there’s no reason to feel guilty if this ideal exchange doesn’t happen. And if you get overwhelmed, Roeske said, you can consider removing yourself from the conversation and going for a walk or retreating to another room.
“If you don’t see the potential for an open, constructive conversation, it is sometimes best to just walk away,” Henderson said.
Article originally published on Verywell Health