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Zoom family meeting on a laptop during Christmas
Zoom family meeting on a laptop during Christmas

Formalizing Your COVID-19 Boundaries

7 Strategies to Effectively Communicate With Loved Ones

While holidays are typically a time of gathering and celebration with family and friends, many are reshaping their seasonal traditions to avoid putting themselves or others at additional risk for COVID-19. The CDC has recommended that people stay home and skip holiday travel altogether this year.

It may not be easy communicating to others that you will be breaking tradition or holding a low-risk holiday celebration, especially if your loved ones are not on the same page as you. However, “setting clear boundaries around your personal space is very important,” says Danesh A. Alam, MD, medical director of Behavioral Health Services at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “Direct conversations about safety, preventive measures and modeling your desired behavior can go a long way.”

Here are some strategies for establishing healthy boundaries with loved ones during the holiday season and beyond.

  1. Know Your Boundaries

    It is essential to first understand your own comfort level around social interaction. Do your research by checking the latest information around COVID-19 risk and reviewing CDC recommendations around physical distancing. Remember, while it is acceptable to ask those you will be in contact with to get tested beforehand, a negative COVID-19 test only informs you of whether or not an individual is infected at the time the sample was collected, so further precaution is advised.

    Establish your plan for interaction with others, and know that you can always modify your boundaries and alter your plans as circumstances change.

  2. Be Direct

    “It is OK to disclose what and how you feel about COVID-19,” says Dr. Alam. Not everyone will be aware of your vulnerabilities, so be open and direct. If you choose to invite people over for a physically distanced gathering or plan to see people in any way with precautions in place, Dr. Alam suggests sending an email to guests ahead of time stating your boundaries and why they are important to you.

  3. Practice Empathy Through Active Listening

    While communicating about boundaries with loved ones, differences in opinions are to be expected. Listen closely to understand those who disagree with you, validate their opinions and use language like “I feel” to explain your own opinions. For example, tell your parents you understand that they are upset if they vocalize they will miss spending the holidays with you in person.

  4. Lead With the Positive

    By leading with a positive statement, the conversation may take a lighter tone. You can open the conversation by expressing your desire to get together in a different way and invite your loved ones to start a new holiday tradition this year. Avoid group settings when breaking news or confronting loved ones, as they may feel attacked if there is more than one voice disagreeing with their perspective.

  5. Focus on Your Comfort Level Over Right From Wrong

    During a time with so many unknowns, there is not much benefit to establishing who is right or wrong. Focus on your core values. Do not get combative or try to persuade others to share your own core values. If a loved one’s behavior impacts your health, speak up and make the conversation about your concern for both their well-being and your own.

  6. Avoid Judgment

    When discussing your concern or a change in plan, focus on the situation and the outcome of your conversation with matter-of-fact language. Do not use labels or offensive words to describe contradicting behavior or perspectives. Acknowledge varied beliefs and emotions experienced, such as disappointment. Try to pause any impulsive reactions and speak to your loved ones with more mindfulness and patience, if needed.

  7. Find Common Ground

    Remember that there is usually at least one commonality between two parties of a conversation. Reassure your family and friends that you love and care about them. Use this conversation as an opportunity to grow your relationships in new ways.