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How to Handle Family Dinner Vaccination Questions

Posted on: July 28th, 2021 by The Family Dinner Project Team

“Hi, Family Dinner Project Team. I have a question for you. How should families handle questions about ‘are you vaccinated?’ when planning family gatherings?”

This question, sent through our Facebook page, is a good indication of where many families are right now in their “re-entry” process. Personal decisions about vaccinations and other safety precautions are emotionally charged, and when they differ among family members, they can cause stress and strain — especially when extended families may want to gather after a long period of separation, but not everyone is convinced it’s safe.

As our Executive Director Anne Fishel remarked in an interview with AARP this spring, the reason these conversations are so difficult is because they’re about how we’re going to move forward as families, and how we plan to take care of ourselves and others. The question of COVID safety can literally be about life and death. When it feels like we’re not on the same page about something so fundamentally important to us, there can be hurt and resentment among family members. And since Pew research conducted in December of 2020 showed that roughly 40 percent of Americans said they were unlikely to get a vaccine (with half of those indicating that they might change their minds) — numbers that have proven to be relatively accurate at this point in time — it’s not a sure bet that reluctant family members will suddenly have a change of heart and get the shot.

So, to return to our Facebook question, what should families do? We wish there were a single easy answer to this question that would allow all families to joyfully and safely gather. But since there’s not, the best thing we can offer is a set of guidelines to help you make your own decisions about how to engage. Here are some ideas:

  • Be clear about your expectations and boundaries. This may be one of the hardest parts for some of us, but before we can even consider having a conversation with family members about vaccinations and gatherings, we have to know where we stand. Do you feel strongly that you won’t attend indoor gatherings with unvaccinated family members, for example? What about outdoor gatherings? Are you comfortable if people are masked? What if there are unvaccinated children? How would you feel if you were asked not to attend a gathering because your choices about COVID safety don’t match the host’s requirements — are you comfortable enough with your decision to handle that rejection? Knowing exactly how you feel about the possibilities and clearly, calmly communicating those boundaries to important family members can help stave off any disagreements before they begin.
  • Set judgements aside. It can be very difficult not to judge a family member who is making a choice we strongly disagree with, especially if that choice might impact our ability to have the gatherings we’ve looked forward to. If the vaccination question comes up, try to start from a place of agreement: “If we choose to have this discussion right now, can we agree not to interrupt each other or be unkind? If we start to get upset with one another, can we agree we’ll step back and take time to cool off before trying again?” Once you’ve set some ground rules for the conversation, try to listen carefully to what they’re worried about. Find common ground if you can: “I know you’re disappointed that we can’t get together because of this. I am, too. I really wish we could see each other, and I’m looking forward to the day we’re both comfortable enough to make that happen.”
  • Open up. If you had your own reservations or worries about the decision you came to on this topic, it might help to share those, so your family member knows that you also had a difficult choice to make. It can also be helpful to openly share your feelings about how their differing choices are affecting you. You might say something like “I’m worried about your health and safety because you’re not getting the vaccine, but I’m also just really sad that it means you can’t come see the kids.” Or “I’m upset and hurt that I’m not allowed to come to dinner and spend time with the family because you disagree with my choices.” Your family members might not change their minds after hearing your feelings, but they’ll have a better understanding of your point of view and why the issue is important to you.
  • Understand the end goal. Having the conversation about vaccines and family gatherings is important so that everyone understands the rules of each household. But there comes a point when continuing to discuss the issue, knowing that others won’t change their minds or their behavior, might not be the most productive choice. Before entering into further discussion on the topic, try to understand what your personal end goal is. Do you hope to change their minds? Do you hope to find a compromise position, like convincing family to meet at an outdoor venue instead, or getting agreement that unvaccinated people will wear masks in your home? Or are you firm in your position, and not interested in exploring the issue further? Knowing how you’d like the conversation to end can make it easier to know what to say (or not say), and can also make it easier to simply say “I’m sorry, but we’ve talked about this — unless something has changed for you, I don’t think it’s going to be helpful for us to talk about it again. Let’s change the subject.”

Certainly, vaccines are a hot button topic for many families right now, and while every person needs to do what they feel is safest for their health and well-being, we also encourage families to approach this difficult subject with compassion and calm. We can’t make others’ decisions for them, but we can decide to continue offering our love and empathy, even if we have to do so from a distance.