Navigating Family Dynamics during the Holidays and COVID-19 Navigating family dynamics during the holidays can often be challenging, even more so this year with the addition of COVID-19. Instead of looking forward to the festivities of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, many people feel even more anxious and stressed about the upcoming holidays. This article is not meant to say what activities you and your family should participate in or not participate in during COVID-19. Rather it aims to offer insights for people with varying viewpoints to encourage communication, understanding, and creativity for families during this unconventional holiday season.
Communication: Start by taking some time to think and talk about the upcoming holiday season with your immediate family. Consider topics like: What does (insert holiday) mean to me? What holiday traditions do I enjoy? What holiday traditions are less enjoyable? If I could keep one thing the same about (insert holiday) what would it be? Do I have any concerns about the holidays? How can we adapt holiday activities? Be sure to include children of all ages during your conversations. It can be valuable and surprising to learn what may be on the minds of children. While a parent may feel like they have so much pressure to create the “perfect” Christmas, a child’s biggest concern may be answering the question can Santa Claus get COVID-19. Throughout the holiday season, keep the conversations going. Talking about many of these topics is not a one-time event. It is a continual process that will evolve with brainstorming and problem solving. Throughout all conversations, remember to focus on compassionate rather than critical responses to all family member’s concerns and ideas. For many people, it feels like they have to choose a side during COVID-19: participating in events or not participating in events. Instead, try thinking about participation during COVID-19 on a spectrum where each person’s decision about a specific event comes down to risk tolerance. Risk tolerance can be described as an individual’s acceptance or avoidance of certain risk factors in a given situation. A COVID-19 risk tolerance spectrum is fluid and a person can adjust their position on the spectrum for each specific situation based on new information they encounter and comfortability in the moment. During decision making, it can be helpful for people to identify what is their individual risk tolerance for a given situation. In addition, consider what is the collective household’s risk tolerance. Identifying risk tolerance can be useful for determining if adaptations to certain activities can be made to increase comfortability and safety. Since it is nearly impossible to guess what thoughts and feelings are motivating someone’s behaviors, communication is essential. Communicating one’s expectations and concerns as well as communicating in the moment during uncomfortable situations can be essential for family members as they determine what the holidays will look like this year.
Understanding: Topics fueled by passion can be especially difficult to cultivate feelings of understanding for all members involved. During tense conversations, it can be beneficial to utilize reflective listening skills and I-statements to aide in feelings of understanding. In regard to COVID-19, many people vary in their responses to participating in certain social activities and extended family gatherings. Let’s consider an example where two adult sisters are discussing a family Thanksgiving. For example, Amy states, “It is worth the risk to see my extended family in person,” as her reason for wanting to host a family Thanksgiving this year. Her sister Elizabeth clarifies her own reasons for not wanting to attend by saying, “My family is too valuable to risk attending the event.” Now imagine both people immediately get defensive and argumentative about their justifications for their actions and their beliefs. The drama has the potential to get ugly fast. However, let’s instead consider that Elizabeth genuinely wants to understand Amy and therefore utilizes reflective listening and I-statement skills. After hearing Amy’s reason for wanting to attend the family Thanksgiving, Elizabeth instead replies with a reflective listening statement of, “It sounds like family is really important to you and it means a lot to you to be able to see family. Even though some people might not be comfortable with meeting in person due to COVID-19, you have assessed the risks and are ok with meeting in person.” Rephrasing what Amy has previously said allows for Amy to then respond with yes, you understand my viewpoint, or no, what I actually meant was something different. This type of back and forth dialogue increases everyone’s understanding. After receiving a confirmation that Elizabeth did accurately reflect Amy’s viewpoint with her reflective listening, Elizabeth then uses I-statements to express her views. Elizabeth says, “I understand that you may feel comfortable with meeting in person, but I have concerns for my own son’s health because he has asthma. As a result of my concerns for his safety, my family has decided we are not comfortable with attending Thanksgiving in person. I am wondering if you would be open to celebrating Thanksgiving with us virtually this year.” Elizabeth’s use of I-statements allows her to express her own feelings without Amy feeling attacked. After listening to Elizabeth’s perspective, Amy may then say, “I had not realized that you might be taking extra precautions this year due to concerns about your son and his increased complication risk due to having asthma. You have given me something to further consider.” Now there are many directions the conversation can go from here, but no matter how the conversation ultimately ends, both people are more likely to feel understood. In addition, it is interesting to note that both Amy and Elizabeth have the value of family rooted at the core of their responses and actions regarding a gathering for Thanksgiving. As a result, when encountering differing viewpoints this holiday season, look for ways to connect through commonalities. While people may ultimately have different actions based on their beliefs, recognizing the shared values and using healthy communication skills can help prevent the emotional divide that may have otherwise erupted and instead instill feelings of understanding.
Creativity: Once you have established lines of communication and feelings of understanding in your family, let your creativity shine. It is ok to remember past holiday celebrations and even grieve the changes that have happened this year due to COVID-19. But also give yourself permission to enjoy the potential this unique holiday season may offer. Look for ways to preserve old traditions where appropriate. At the same time, explore ways to modify holiday activities to accommodate current circumstances and brainstorm new ways to spread joy this holiday season. Being creative this year may look like making homemade gifts, resurrecting an old family recipe, having a picnic or virtual Thanksgiving meal, playing in the snow as a family, sending cards to loved ones, virtually singing Christmas carols for someone in a nursing home, or inviting a group of friends and family to view Christmas lights in a vehicle caravan. Be sure to include your children as part of the creativity process; they have great imaginations that enhance creativity. Whatever conventional or unconventional ways your family will be celebrating the holidays this year, when circumstances may prevent you from being face to face, if you emphasize connecting heart to heart, you will be sure to have a memorable Holiday Season this year. Wishing you all a healthy and blessed Holiday Season from your Heart to Heart family. ~Tasha Lehner MA