Jordan, a doctoral student in Britain, spent the early weeks of the pandemic fretting about how the coronavirus might affect her elderly grandparents.
The same couldn’t be said for her parents. Even as the British government slowly began to ramp up its coronavirus response, Jordan said her parents, both in their 50s, were too lax about the threat.
“They are continuing to work, which I understand because my mom is a teacher ― schools are still open in the U.K. ― and my dad works outdoors, but they’re not really taking it seriously,” said Jordan, who asked that we use only her first name so she could speak openly.
Her parents are still visiting her grandparents and going out to eat at restaurants.
“My dad keeps saying ‘it’s just like the flu’ and that ‘a lot of people die every day,’” she said. “They don’t seem to understand how social distancing can help other people because they are not worried about getting it and they don’t seem to listen when I try to talk to them about it.”
Across the pond in Maryland, writer Micaela Walley is dealing with the same resistance from many of her relatives.
“I live in Maryland, where our local officials have been very proactive in taking steps to prevent the coronavirus from spreading,” Walley said. “But a large portion of my family lives in the Deep South, where their local officials are known for being notoriously inactive across the board.”
When Walley brings up the preventative steps being mandated in her state, her family tells her the threat of COVID-19 is “not as big of a deal as the media portrays it to be.”
“It’s extremely disheartening to see the people that I love react this way,” Walley told HuffPost. “And my family members are some of the very people that would be the most vulnerable to this virus if they contracted it.”
Millennials and Gen Z have been roundly criticized for not taking the threat of coronavirus seriously (and rightfully so; look at all the young people who’ve been busted for house parties). But as Walley’s and Jordan’s stories illustrate, baby boomer parents and relatives are just as likely to dismiss the need to social distant. That’s especially worrisome because COVID-19 is most dangerous for older adults or those with serious health conditions. (An older adult is broadly defined as anyone over the age of 60).
“I think some people are naturally immune to the panic even though they are not immune to COVID19,” said Shane G. Owens, a psychologist and the assistant director of campus mental health at Farmingdale State College (SUNY).
“When you mix this with Americans’ deeply rooted sense of liberty, it can be a dangerous combination,” Owens said. “We do not like being told where not to go and what not to do.”
In these challenging times, we have to look beyond ourselves. But how do you convince your relatives that this isn’t a political issue or even a family issue, it’s a major global health crisis?
Below, Owens and family therapists offer their advice for talking to family and close friends who still don’t believe they’re affected by the pandemic.
Don’t come at your relative with judgment, just concern and facts.
Express your opinion clearly and non-judgmentally. Owens suggested using “I” language. (For instance, “I am worried for your health and the health of others you might come into contact with” instead of “You really should be doing more to keep the numbers down.”)
Come prepared with facts available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization, he said. Talk about how, even if they’re young or relatively healthy for their age, they can be a carrier for the virus and spread it without ever experiencing symptoms.
Some relatives may heed your advice, but others will need hard facts, Owens said, drawing on his personal experience as an example.
“I had to call my parents last night and tell them I think they should stay home for a while,” he said. “While still young for parents of a guy my age, they are at greater risk. It went as predicted: My mom, who tends to be anxious about some things and the one who taught me the importance of following rules, said, ‘Well, OK, if you say so.’”
His dad reacted the opposite way.
“My dad, who’s less anxious than almost anyone I know and has a healthy distrust of rules and authority, pushed back some,” Owens said. “He trusts science, though, and doctors — especially me and my best friend, who’s an infectious disease doctor —and said he’d think about it.”
The most important thing, Owens said, is that the person is left to choose for themselves while understanding their responsibility and the consequences.
Approach the conversation in a loving way.
Most of the time, when something stirs us up or we disagree, we don’t think about how we’re delivering our message. When talking about coronavirus, approach it from a place of love, said Liz Higgins, a family therapist and founder of Millennial Life Counseling in Dallas.
“Think of ways to deliver your message that get to the heart of the point, which is that you care about their safety, their health, and want to do your part in at least communicating that to your loved one,” she said.
For tough conversations like this, don’t just spring it on them. Tell them you’d like to jump on the phone and talk about something important to you when they have a chance.
“Ask if you can talk to them about something without just confronting them and catching them off-guard,” Higgins said.
Focus on something they care about.
Get your relatives’ buy-in to social distancing by focusing on something that they do consider important, said Nikole Benders-Hadi, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health at Doctor on Demand.
“No one wants to be told what to do, so instead of telling them how they ought to change their behavior, focus instead on things they do actually prioritize,” she said. “They may have concerns about family members who may be immunocompromised, or the long-term financial consequences of this pandemic, or something else.”
Your cousin may be wrapped up in making questionable vacation plans, but she’ll likely understand that grandma’s health comes first.
Compare coronavirus to pandemics and health emergencies of the past.
Your relative might not be convinced that the threat of coronavirus is serious, but if they’ve lived through other pandemics and health crises, they’ve seen the consequences of inaction.
Maybe they experienced the polio epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s. Or maybe your grandpa was born just a few years after the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 675,000 Americans among a staggering 20 million to 50 million people globally.
Talk about these historic moments with younger relatives who want to go out, too.
“Remind people that personal sacrifice is necessary for the greater good,” said Virginia Gilbert, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.
“Older generations who lived through the Depression, the World Wars and other pandemics should be able to understand that there’s more to life than their personal happiness, as young people are learning now.”
“Social distancing is hard. We like to be around others, even though we spend a lot of time on social media.”
Be realistic about what you can do.
It’s hard to find two people who can agree on the exact same amount of caution or seriousness with which to approach COVID-19. If your relative is still not taking the bait, it’s OK to establish boundaries (for instance, no grandkid visits for the time being) or to physically distance yourself, said Marie Land, a therapist in Washington, D.C.
“Once you’ve tried to make your point, it may be better to just try to see how you can both make this work,” Land said. “I know college students want to rent an Airbnb or stay with friends or other family because there are differences in how restrictive they want to be compared to their parents.”
Acknowledge that social distancing is hard even for you.
Everyone is feeling the brunt of coronavirus. Even those who are in denial or appear to have no emotions about it most likely do. One of the most important things you can do is to approach your relative with empathy: You’re just as bummed out about self-isolating as they are. Tell them that.
“Social distancing is hard,” Owens said. “We like to be around others, even though we spend a lot of time on social media. And those — like me —with kids are going to find it increasingly difficult not to have playdates and to keep them away from their older relatives. It impacts us all.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.