How to Talk to Family Members About Your Thanksgiving COVID Protocol

A family therapist offers tips on how to have the conversation with family members who might not agree.

The pandemic that has upended so many aspects of life this year shows no signs of retreating, certainly not before we cook and carve the Thanksgiving turkey. So we asked what's on so many minds: Is it possible to plan for a safe and happy Thanksgiving, with or without guests?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released its safety guidelines, which include ways to minimize your risk. But even if you are following those guidelines, how can you be sure Thanksgiving guests who don't live with you are doing the same? And what about family members who think such precautions are unnecessary?

We chatted with Ashleigh Edelstein, a licensed family therapist, about the best way to have these tough conversations. Here are her recommendations.

thanksgiving food spread
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Decide What You’re Comfortable With

First things first: You have the final say over who enters your home. Decide what makes you comfortable, and don't feel you have to compromise on safety just to please everyone or avoid conflict. If you’re hosting the holiday gathering, you can ask guests to commit to quarantining for a set number of days before the big meal, or request that they diligently wear masks at your home until dinner is served.

Know where you stand before you have conversations with family members or other guests. That way, you can be firm in your decision if someone disagrees.

Lay Out the Ground Rules

Once you’ve decided what the necessary precautions are, let family members know. You probably already know who will agree or disagree with your decision, so Edelstein recommends letting that inform how you'll tell them. “If you have family members you suspect will disagree or potentially even start an argument, a group email or text may not be the best medium because it could cause family-wide conflict,” she says. “In this case, it's best to reach out to each person individually through a call, text or email, whichever you feel most comfortable with.”

If you already know your family members have been quarantining and taking the same precautions as you, Edelstein says a quick group text or email should suffice.

Write out your expectations in advance so you can clearly explain your ground rules; provide a rationale for your request (such as research and recommendations from the CDC or your local government). Edelstein also recommends thanking everyone in advance for their cooperation: This scenario isn’t ideal for anyone, and everyone deals with change differently.

Establish Firm Boundaries

Even when we’re not living through a pandemic, the holiday season typically brings out at least a little bit of family drama, so you may be tempted to let some things slide to keep the peace. Edelstein, however, recommends standing your ground—in a kind way.

“Whenever you're in a disagreement, you can validate the other person's emotions or perspective without agreeing with them,” she said. “For instance, you could say something like, ‘I hear that you feel this is unfair/unnecessary/excessive and you're upset/angry/disappointed. I highly value your health and the safety of our family (or any other rationale), which is why I'm requesting this and need everyone to participate. I would appreciate your willingness to respect this and would look forward to sharing a meal with you.’”

Ashleigh Edelstein

Whenever you're in a disagreement, you can validate the other person's emotions or perspective without agreeing with them.

— Ashleigh Edelstein

In the event that someone is unwilling to comply with the safety measures you’ve laid out, Edelstein says it’s absolutely appropriate to tell them they can’t attend. “If they show up without taking any precautions, they could easily get everyone sick, making all the other effort pointless,” she explains. “You can validate without agreeing and still hold a firm boundary.”

She recommends responding with a message like this: "I understand and I'm sad/hurt/disappointed you won't be able to join us this year. Please let me know if you change your mind, and we can problem-solve ways you can effectively take these precautions."

This rationale works both ways. If you’re not the host and don’t feel comfortable with the ways your family members have (or have not) been following safety precautions, Edelstein says there's another option: Celebrate the holiday on your own.

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