How to talk to friends and family about attending holiday gatherings during coronavirus

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How to Talk to Friends and Family About Attending Holiday Gatherings During Coronavirus

How to Talk to Friends and Family About Attending Holiday Gatherings During Coronavirus

It begins, and ends, with empathy
How to talk to friends and family about attending holiday gatherings during coronavirus

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Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and the coronavirus pandemic will make navigating the holidays with friends and family who live out of state a little difficult. How can you tell mom you may not come home for Christmas? To figure out how to have these discussions, we emailed with Nicole Francen Schmitt, PsyD, a psychologist with Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital, on how to have these conversations.

Know your own comfort level

Know your own comfort level

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Though schools and restaurants have reopened across the country, different people have different levels of comfort when it comes to being among others. And that’s OK. The first thing to do is figure out where you stand. Are you OK with an outdoor gathering? Are you keeping your pandemic pod limited? “Think about your own comfort level attending the holidays and whether there are certain limitations or safety expectations that you would like in place,” Dr. Schmitt said. “Consider your highest priorities and get creative. Think about alternative options and plan for worst-case scenarios. The clearer your expectations are, the easier it will be to express them to others. If you and your immediate family are on the same page, that will help as well.”

Have a game plan

Have a game plan

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If you’re nervous about talking to your family, work through it with your spouse, close friend or roommate first. “It is important to have a game plan going into these conversations. … If it would help, role-play the conversations with a trusted friend or spouse,” Dr. Schmitt said. “It is OK to say no. It is OK to put your health and overall well being first.”

Set boundaries, but validate your family’s feelings

Set boundaries, but validate your family’s feelings

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Being a grandparent, for instance, can change your life. And if grandma wants to see her grandbabies, she may be upset. So, make sure you understand how she could feel. “I usually recommend validating feelings. By recognizing your family member’s feelings, it immediately takes the conversation out of defensive territory,” Dr. Schmitt said. “For example, you can say: ‘I know it is important for you to see your grandchildren, it is important to me too. We are all disappointed that we cannot make it work this year. Is it possible to do XYZ instead?’”

Be respectful

Be respectful

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“Indicate that you are making the best choice you can for your family and you respect the decisions they are making as well. It is hard to know what the right answer is all the time,” Dr. Schmitt said. Being respectful of others’ beliefs is also an important tip for discussing politics with family.

Be transparent

Be transparent

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It’s important to be transparent, direct and firm when talking with your family, especially as plans can change. “The clearer and more transparent the better,” Dr. Schmitt said. Honesty is the best policy, after all.

Problem-solve with family

Problem-solve with family

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If you aren’t comfortable traveling during the coronavirus pandemic, consider alternative ways to celebrate the holidays. After all, why does Christmas have to be celebrated on Dec. 25? “I would consider problem-solving with them,” Dr. Schmitt said. “Can they reschedule for a different time? Is there an alternative way to travel (i.e. rather than flying or bus)?”

Talk about quarantines and tests

Talk about quarantines and tests

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If your family feels strongly about carving turkey together on Thanksgiving, but the idea makes you uneasy, Dr. Schmitt recommended asking them to voluntarily self-quarantine before you see them. You can do the same. If everyone stays home, there’s less of a chance of being exposed to COVID-19. 

To go one step further, you can talk to the host openly about testing. It may feel uneasy asking if everyone will have been tested, but it is valid if this is a requirement for you to attend. Just remember that everyone has a different view on tests and some places will not test without symptoms. Be ready to make a decision for yourself if some attendees won’t be tested. 

Let your family know things can change

Let your family know things can change

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Levels of coronavirus infection, travel restrictions and what establishments are and are not open in any given state are constantly changing. That means you may not be comfortable traveling from Vermont to Texas now, but you could be by the week of Hanukkah. “Start having conversations now to prepare family members. Inform family that you may not know until right before the holidays whether you will be able to participate and apologize for any inconvenience,” Dr. Schmitt said. “Highlight how much you want to be there and note that there is too much uncertainty at this time to plan that far ahead.”

Begin thinking of alternative ways to interact

Begin thinking of alternative ways to interact

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Dr. Schmitt recommends you think of alternative ways to interact. In fact, there are plenty of ways to keep in touch with family and friends amid the pandemic, so consider those. Maybe you all buy matching PJs and open presents together via Zoom, or you all watch a Christmas movie together on a streaming app while baking cookies.

Make compromises

Make compromises

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There are some holiday traditions, like looking for a Christmas tree together, that seem untouchable, but you can get creative with them. “Can you do family traditions through technology?” Dr Schmitt said. “Can you schedule something special for the summer? Think about the things you can compromise on and the things that you cannot.”

Opt for contactless affection

Opt for contactless affection

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If you do opt for an outdoors or socially distanced holiday celebration, know how to show loved ones you care without endangering each other. But be sure to keep things light. “It is easy to make light of it by sharing a joke,” Dr. Schmitt said. “Perhaps you do not feel comfortable hugging but will do an ‘elbow bump,’ You can gesture for an ‘air hug’ to show the sentiment is there.”

Consider an outdoor celebration

Consider an outdoor celebration

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It may seem like you can’t play white elephant and eat holiday ham together while being socially distant, but you can space your furniture 6 feet apart or take the holiday celebration outside. “Are their options to do socially distant visits? Even though the holidays may look and feel a little different, that does not mean that they cannot be special and memorable,” Dr. Schmitt said. Though fall and winter can be quite chilly, if you live in a city with a more mild temperature or you want to eat safely, outdoor celebrations are a good option. “Offer to help set up if you would prefer socially distant tables outside,” Dr. Schmitt said. “Perhaps families can split the cost of outdoor heaters, etc.”

Be polite when asking others to wear face coverings

Be polite when asking others to wear face coverings

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Face coverings have become a hot-button issue politically. And while it’s important to wear a face mask properly, you can’t force it on others. “Be polite and considerate of others’ beliefs when asking others to wear face coverings,” Dr. Schmitt said.

See this as an opportunity to better your relationships

See this as an opportunity to better your relationships

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Any time you can have an important conversation with family, see it as a way to improve communication. “Consider this a chance to set boundaries and improve communication within your family. Oftentimes, the holidays are stressful because family dynamics are amplified. This year, there is an increased opportunity to set boundaries with family, focus on communication, evaluate what traditions are most important, and to learn to say no when necessary,” Dr. Schmitt said. “Consider it an opportunity rather than an obligation.”

Be empathetic

Be empathetic

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“Also, remember that isolation can be difficult this time of year. Even if this is not in person, it is important to maintain social connections and to utilize your emotional support system the best you can,” Dr. Schmitt said. “Emotional health and wellness is also important, especially during emotionally difficult times such as these.” And it’s true: It’s important to show others empathy and kindness this holiday season. After all, that’s one of the most important rules of coronavirus-era etiquette.

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