Navigating the Emotional Turf of Fall Family Gatherings

As one of 11 siblings, Charity Hoffman is used to spending Christmas with dozens of relatives at her parents’ house in Lansing, Mich. This year will be her 7-month-old daughter’s first Christmas and the family’s second holiday season without her brother, who died in 2019. She says she has a “big, loving family,” and being together helps them to grapple with the loss of her brother.

But while she had many socially distant porch and backyard visits this past summer, Dr. Hoffman, who is 35 and lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., said that for the first time, she will not be spending Christmas with her extended family, opting to be with only her husband and daughter. In addition to wanting to keep her baby safe, “we want to protect our community and not contribute to the spread,” she said.

Time spent with family is considered a key source of meaning and satisfaction, according to two 2017 Pew Research Center surveys. Yet squabbles are erupting as family members have different perceptions of how to stay safe — and not expose others to the virus. Varying approaches are resulting in “a lot of tension within families and a lot of judgment,” said Vaile Wright, senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.

Some families may be more or less risk averse when it comes to engaging in decision-making that could potentially put others at risk of contracting the disease. There are gray areas, like whether it’s safe to eat indoors with those who aren’t living with you or send children to school, Dr. Wright said. “They’re questions without clear answers.”

For Dr. Hoffman, she said that it’s been hard to negotiate the situation, as family members disagree on the extent of precaution to take. “What’s too risky for someone is overly cautious for someone else,” she said. She added: “It’s not that anyone doesn’t think we need to be careful. It’s just the way we interpret conflicting messages from our leadership varies, so it’s not even like there are two sides, just varying degrees of risk mitigation.”

Holidays can be stressful even during normal circumstances. And in many family conflicts, experts counsel compromise. But that may not be the right approach here, because giving in to another relative’s wishes for a traditional holiday feast around the dining room table may be too great a risk for other family members, especially if they’d have to mix together with people from parts of the country that are hot spots.

Dr. Wright said you shouldn’t expose yourself to family members if you feel they’re not following protective behaviors. But that can be a prickly situation, resulting in some family members feeling hurt or rejected. Here are some suggestions from experts on how to make it work.

Developing a plan, clearly communicating expectations and discussing it with family members now can help alleviate tensions, said Robert E. Emery, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law at the University of Virginia. Check in to see if your guests are comfortable with your proposed plan and be flexible in modifying it if there’s an easy way to make everyone feel safe and more comfortable.

Even though it may seem uncomfortable to broach the subject, it will avoid a situation that could be even more awkward later.

Ms. Goyer suggests having clear guidelines about mask-wearing and how much distance you’ll require between each person. Dr. Emery said if you’re being invited, it’s fine to ask the host about the plans, but not dictate. “You can’t insist someone host a party according to your standards,” he said.

Hosts should discuss the protocols and expectations ahead of the event, Dr. Wright said. “What if you had a smoke-free house and a guest started smoking a cigarette inside?,” she asked. “You would probably have no qualms about asking them to go outside or leaving yourself. Mask-wearing and social distancing need to be thought of the same way.”

Dr. Wright suggested opening up the conversation about your decision in a nonjudgmental way, using “I statements,” which focus responsibility on yourself.

If you decide to forgo the family holiday this year, she said you could say something like, “I feel it’s in my family’s best interests to be more strict, so we’re not going to travel for Thanksgiving.” This type of language, she said, makes the other person less defensive, since it doesn’t come across as “You aren’t doing the right thing so I can’t come visit.”

Ms. Goyer said to evaluate whether extended family members are adhering to the same safety protocols that you follow. The top priority should be safety and feeling comfortable. Soft language can help diffuse the tensions, she said, something like: “We all have the same goals, to keep loved ones safe. That’s how we’ll be making decisions.”

If you decide to skip the family get-together, Dr. Emery suggested you keep the message positive: “Express how much you’ve enjoyed the gathering and you’re going to miss it and look forward to future years.” He said it’s important not to say anything judgmental about your hosts if you decide not to go and be respectful of the choices of others if you’re the host and your guests bow out this year.

It can help to approach this holiday season with the expectation that it will look different than it has in the past, Dr. Wright said. But instead of looking at the downside, she encouraged viewing it as an opportunity to usher in new traditions.

Those who opt out of celebrating in person could participate in a shared activity virtually. Ms. Goyer suggested using apps like House Party that allow you to play games together even if you’re apart, doing your holiday baking with others who are geographically distant or unwrapping presents together via Zoom. Dr. Wright added that holidays should be a time of gratitude and blessing, “so consider reflecting that in a way that really matters.” For example, families who decide not to get together at Thanksgiving could still meet up on a video call to take turns expressing what they’re grateful for, she said.

If you’re creative, you may be able to find ways to see your loved ones in settings that can still be safe. Ms. Goyer is planning to drive from Phoenix to Indianapolis before Thanksgiving to spend time with her older aunt and uncle. But instead of staying with cousins who live in the area, she will opt for a hotel and they will gather in her aunt and uncle’s garage. Another option is to rent a large space — like a lodge — so family members can gather in a socially distant way. And those who have outdoor spaces may be able to stay warm with firepits or heat lamps — though they may be hard to come by.

Ken Schwartz, 49, is weighing whether he should embark on a 2,700-mile drive from his home in Arlington, Va., to Port Hueneme, Calif., in December to spend part of the Christmas holidays with his 71-year-old mother. He last saw her in November 2019. He believes that, for now, driving is safer than traveling by plane and he wants to take every precaution since his 21-year-old daughter, who lives 25 minutes away from him, is pregnant and due in January.

“I’m nervous about seeing Mom, but also nervous about traveling back and getting my daughter sick,” he said. If infection rates go up “and it tangles with the flu and gets worse, I wouldn’t go,” he said. His mother, Pauline Gates, is understanding of the situation, but she said the prospect of not being able to see her son, who is her only child, is depressing. “I miss him terribly.”

Ultimately, what could be most helpful in coping with the pandemic is to remember that this situation is temporary, Dr. Wright said. “None of us can predict the future, but at some point, we are going to be able to come back together again.”

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