How To Talk To Family About Their Risky COVID-19 Behavior

Read this if your loved ones are ignoring safety precautions at this stage of the pandemic.

For months, some of us have watched in frustration as the people we love flout basic coronavirus public health guidance, from wearing masks to practicing social distancing. Other family members may have complied at first but started to let their guard down when pandemic fatigue set in. But now with the U.S. recently hitting an an all-time high of more than 200,000 new daily cases, voicing our concerns about our loved one’s risky behavior is even more necessary and urgent.

Perhaps your parents hosted an indoor, maskless Thanksgiving dinner with your grandparents and other older relatives sitting shoulder to shoulder around the table. Or maybe your 20-something son is still partying with friends on the weekends, but wants to come home for Christmas, putting the rest of your household at risk.

If you’re still taking all the right precautions and are concerned about those in your life who aren’t, you’re certainly not alone. This is a common struggle Americans are facing at this time, said therapist Nicole O-Pries of Virginia Affirming Counseling in Richmond, Virginia.

“I do not know any person in my social life, family or psychotherapy practice, that is not dealing with this issue,” she told HuffPost.

“I do not know any person in my social life, family or psychotherapy practice, that is not dealing with this issue.”

- Nicole O-Pries, psychotherapist in Richmond, Virginia

So how do you talk to someone you love about their risky behavior in a productive way?

First, go into it with realistic expectations. Accept the fact that you can’t control their behavior, as frustrating as that may be.

“It’s likely your loved one has already been inundated with these public health messages over the past nine months, but that hasn’t changed their behavior to date,” O-Pries said. “You only have the ability to make choices for yourself and perhaps your children.”

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort. Lead by example: Keep modeling the safer habits you wish your loved ones would adopt, said Atlanta clinical psychologist Zainab Delawalla. Talk about some of the adjustments you’ve made during the pandemic, while acknowledging how difficult these changes have been at times.

“Share the disappointments you feel by having to alter your behavior to stay safe — like not hosting a big Thanksgiving gathering — and your personal reasons for doing so anyway,” Delawalla added. “You may inspire them to follow suit. Even if they don’t change their behavior, you will offer them another perspective: an insider’s view of what it’s like to make these adjustments, which may possibly quell some anxiety about what it would be like to change their own behavior.”

Another way to set a good example? Maintain firm boundaries. If you tell your family you’re not attending gatherings with multiple households for the time being, don’t cave under pressure when your in-laws invite you to a get-together at their house.

“It may feel like you’re letting everyone down, but when you start making exceptions to the rules you’ve set, it’s hard to argue that others shouldn’t also be allowed to make exceptions,” Delawalla said. “Like, ‘How can you tell me not to go to my friend’s wedding when you just went to Sarah’s birthday party?’”

How To Bring Up Your Concerns

Loved ones still ignoring public health guidance? Therapists offer tips on how to talk to them about their behavior.
Ada daSilva via Getty Images
Loved ones still ignoring public health guidance? Therapists offer tips on how to talk to them about their behavior.

Avoid having the conversation when you’re fired up.

Don’t broach the subject until you’ve gained your composure. Be sure to take some deep breaths before you begin.

“Going into a conversation already activated will likely lead to poor outcomes,” said New York City psychologist Melissa Robinson-Brown. “The wrong word or sentiment will set you off.”

Lead with your concerns, rather than statistics.

“At this stage, I think most people have made up their minds about whether or not they ‘believe’ masks work or if it’s important to limit gatherings in order to curb the spread of the virus,” Delawalla said. “So I don’t think leading with facts or statistics will be as useful as leading with your emotions.”

Use “I” statements.

Accusatory “you” statements — like “You’re so selfish” or “You only care about yourself” — can escalate tensions so they aren’t productive. Instead, use an “I” statement that focuses on how you feel, rather than attacking the other person.

Robinson-Brown offered a few examples, like: “I’m worried that I didn’t see you take a mask with you today,” or “I’m concerned about your health and safety. I don’t want you to get sick.” You can also pair your concern with a question that gives the other person a chance to share their own thought process — something like: “I’m scared because you’ve been socializing a lot more lately, which puts Grandpa at risk. Can you help me understand why you aren’t wearing a mask anymore?”

Try to reserve judgment (even though it’s hard!).

No one would blame you for feeling judgmental about your family’s reckless behavior. But shaming or chastising them is likely to trigger defensiveness, making them more resistant to change. Instead, try to appeal to them by acknowledging some of their points, but pushing for change anyway, Delawalla said.

“For example, if an elderly parent says they find masks uncomfortable, you can say, ‘I find masks uncomfortable as well, which is why I limit my time in the grocery store by making a list and shopping at off-peak hours so I can get my shopping done quickly and leave the store,’” she said.

If you still can’t get through to them, you might need to stop seeing them for the time being.

“The reality is that no amount of guilting, yelling, nasty comments, or rage is likely to change your family’s mind,” Robinson-Brown said. “If members of your family are still unwilling to make changes regarding their behavior, then you have decisions to make about your contact with them.”

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