The 2020 holiday season is going to be unlike any other. This might be the first year that you seriously consider not heading to your family haunts for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the New Year, to avoid spreading COVID-19 to your family and friends (or bringing it back to your community). And that could cause some serious family tension. If you're not sure how to deal with telling disappointed family members you're not coming home for the holidays, experts have different strategies you can use to prepare.
"Many Americans are feeling depressed and overwhelmed by all the 'do nots' of this pandemic year," Dr. Teresa Bartlett M.D., managing director and senior medical officer at claims management service Sedgwick, tells Bustle. "It is taking its toll on our normal ability for celebrations." But, she says, going home may be off the table for many people this holiday season. Anyone with coronavirus symptoms or who's tested positive should not travel home for the holidays unless they've been declared no longer contagious, and the same goes for anyone who's high-risk. And Dr. Seema Sarin M.D., director of lifestyle medicine at EHE Health, tells Bustle that if your trip involves going to or coming from a place with soaring COVID-19 case numbers — which, at this point, is many places in the U.S. — staying put might be the best option. "If rates are increasing it may be safer to postpone your gathering and share a virtual dinner," she says.
How To Tell Your Family You're Not Coming Home For The Holidays
At some point, you'll have to break the news to your fam. "Be honest about how you’re feeling and the way you and your family are navigating this pandemic," therapist Heidi McBain L.M.F.T. tells Bustle. "Be empathic, but also set and maintain clear boundaries around what you are and aren’t willing to do."
"Make it clear that you do want to spend the holidays with them," Amy Cirbus Ph.D. L.M.H.C., a counselor with therapy provider Talkspace, tells Bustle. "The reason you're not going to celebrate together in person, or you’re concerned about it, is out of concern for their health and safety." She recommends preparing yourself before the call, so you don't come out feeling defensive. Phrase your decision in terms of concern for their welfare — "I love you, and I couldn't bear it if you got sick," for instance.
How To Respond To Your Family's Reaction
Prepare yourself for their emotional responses. They may be disappointed, try to guilt-trip you, or just be understandably sad that you can't celebrate together this year. Psychotherapist Shira Kelly L.M.H.C., a provider with therapy service Alma, tells Bustle to try to accept whatever their reaction might be. "Some people might be angry with you should you decide not to come home," she says. Try not to hide from how they're feeling. "Being transparent about our feelings, all the while validating the other person's, can be a beginning to setting conscious boundaries," Kelly says. Openly say things like "I hear you" or "I get how you feel," to help them feel understood. And, Cirbus says, let them know it's difficult for you too. The more you connect, the easier it might be.
If your family members or friends don't believe COVID-19 is a big risk, or they challenge your decision-making, the conversation might get heated. "Stay in your own truth, even if it differs from others around you," McBain says. Take a deep breath and step away if you need to. You can start a discussion about what they think and compare it to your own views, if you feel you have the energy, but you may just need to agree to disagree. You could also center your own argument around your love for them and a "better safe than sorry" perspective — as in, even if they perceive the risks as small, you don't want to take the chance.
How To Celebrate Thanksgiving Even If You're Not Traveling
Planning alternative celebrations can be a helpful way to move forward. "Make it fun by planning days and times during the holidays to connect via Zoom calls," McBain says. "Find creative ways to keep the family traditions going, while keeping an openness for doing things a little differently this year as well because of COVID-19." Put together online Bingo, a scavenger hunt, Zoom charades, even communal present-wrapping parties, or Zoom carol singing.
Family dynamics are difficult at any time of year, but 2020 might bring out particularly fractious divisions. "Boundaries are essential for any healthy relationship, as they create the space for individuals to maintain a connection, while also making space for the other to vocalize their needs," Kelly says. Remember that as you plan your celebrations, no matter what they may look like this year.
Dr. Teresa Bartlett M.D.
Amy Cirbus Ph.D. L.M.H.C.
Shira Kelly L.M.H.C.
Heidi McBain L.M.F.T.
Dr. Seema Sarin M.D.