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9 Tips for Healthy COVID-19 Conversations This Thanksgiving

Family at a table with woman dialing in on laptop

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Key Takeaways

  • It may be challenging to navigate conversations about COVID-19 safety, like mask-wearing and vaccinations, with family members. 
  • There are ways to engage in healthy conversations about COVID-19 safety. You can make a plan, set boundaries, and practice reflective listening. 
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), releases up-to-date recommendations about holiday celebrations and COVID-19.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, some families nationwide are preparing to meet in person for the holidays. But this year's preparations will need to include conversations about COVID-19 safety. With states enforcing different safety precautions, it can be difficult to navigate conversations with family about the level of precautions you expect to take.

While some politicians and local governments have emphasized the virus’s severity, others have downplayed it—creating further division about COVID-19 safety. Misinformation and false claims continue to undermine safety procedures. 

Of course, a clash of opinions over the holidays isn't new. It's no secret Thanksgiving is a time where families confront political issues and values, Georgia Gaveras, DO, New York-based chief psychiatrist and co-founder of Talkiatry, an online mental health service, tells Verywell. “Thanksgiving is infamous for families that disagree about certain political values to clash,” Gaveras says. 

To keep these conversations healthy and productive, experts suggest a number of steps you can take to lead them in the right direction, from setting boundaries to preparing the points you'd like to make to family members ahead of time.

What This Means For You

It is normal to have different opinions from family and friends. As conversations about stay-at-home orders, bans on social gatherings, and mask mandates materialize, tell your loved ones how you feel and how COVID-19 has affected you. 

How to Navigate Holiday COVID-19 Conversations

If you will be attending a family gathering during the holidays this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding contact with people outside of your household for 14 days before the gathering. You should also bring extra supplies such as masks and hand sanitizer.

If you're hosting the gathering, the CDC suggests:

  • Limiting the number of attendees
  • Providing updated information about COVID-19 safety guidelines
  • Hosting the gathering outdoors rather than indoors

If hosting an outdoor event is not possible, increase ventilation by opening windows and doors to the extent that it is safe and avoid crowded spaces 

When deciding how you'll implement these safety precautions during your gatherings, experts suggest talking to your family about COVID-19 safety ahead of time and knowing where your boundaries lie.

Set Aside a Time For the Conversation

Thanksgiving can be an all-day affair. Judy Ho, PHD, ABPP, ABPdN, CFMHE, clinical neuropsychologist and associate professor at Pepperdine University in California, suggests setting aside time for a conversation about COVID-19 safety. This way, everybody can be attentive and the conversation can go uninterrupted. 

Prepare What You Are Going to Say Ahead of Time  

If you are not sure how your family or friends will react when you ask them to wear a mask or share their thoughts about vaccinations, prepare for what you are going to say ahead of time. “[This means] coming in with that plan, regardless of how much my family begs and tries to convince me; I’m not traveling, and having that be a hard line,” Ho tells Verywell. 

Practice Reflective Listening 

Reflective listening is a practice that involves hearing and understanding while letting the other person know that they are being heard. It allows people to reflect upon all of the different issues that are at hand. 

Ho suggests taking time to reflect on what each person said. “After every few sentences, say, 'Let’s pause really quickly and let me reflect back to you what I think I heard,'” Ho says. There can be communication difficulties because people interpret statements differently. Practicing reflective listening can help families better digest and manage the conversation. 

Engage With Critical Thinking, Not Emotion

“It’s important to remove that level of emotional impulsivity. Let them [family] know the facts,” Ho says. By engaging with critical thinking over emotion, you can allow for more conversation. You can do this by citing accurate scientific sources, Ho proposes. 

Avoid Words like “Always” or “Never”  

Words like “always” or “never” can be triggering for people because it can be accusatory or judgmental, Ho says. For example, language like “you’re never careful” can cause people to be defensive, disengage, and not want to continue conversations about COVID-19 safety. 

Use “I” Over “You” Language

“It’s helpful to utilize “I” language instead of “you” language, because it’s really about how you feel and what you think, as opposed to judging them about what they feel and think,” Ho says. Using "I" language can prevent defensiveness. 

State How Their Decision Impacts You

If a family member chooses to participate in activities that make you feel uncomfortable, such as not wearing a mask or practicing social distancing, you can communicate how their decisions impact your health and wellbeing, according to Rachel Gersten, LMHC, co-founder of Viva Wellness, a mental health and wellness practice based in New York City. 

“If your goal is to affect change, start with statements about how you feel about their behavior,” Gersten tells Verywell. “The impact will go a lot further because your family cares about you and your wellbeing.” An example of communicating this might look like: “When you don’t wear a mask, it makes me feel anxious and it’s impacting my work and sleep.” 

Know When to Disengage 

If you are having a conversation with family and it escalates, you can choose to disengage. “It is important to note that you can also opt-out in a respectful manner,” Gersten says. “You don’t need to ignore somebody, you can be very clear about why you’re not engaging in the conversation.”

Try saying this: “I hear what you are saying. I don’t want to continue with this conversation. Please respect that,” Gersten suggests.

Set Boundaries

Set boundaries by knowing where you stand as an individual on COVID-19 safety issues, Gersten says. Decide what you want to do and have a fine line with what you are comfortable and not uncomfortable doing. Setting boundaries can also prevent conversations from escalating.

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  1. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. COVID-19: holiday celebrations. Updated October 19, 2020.