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What to do when loved ones don’t take COVID seriously

You wear a mask in public, wash your hands frequently and maintain social distancing. But what do you do when your family and friends don’t follow the same COVID safety protocols? Mark Flanagan, LCSW, MPH, MA, a Piedmont outpatient oncology social worker, shares advice for navigating this tricky subject.

“This is tough,” says Flanagan. “The most important thing to know is that you can’t control what other people do. But you can decide what’s important to you.”

How does their behavior affect you?

He recommends considering where your loved one’s behavior falls on the spectrum of your relative safety.

“If someone is not taking COVID seriously, how is that affecting your life?” he says.

If it’s someone you rarely see, such as a long-distance relative or former college roommate, it’s probably not worth addressing your concerns.

“If they’re not following guidelines and you won’t seem them frequently, there isn’t much value in trying to convince them,” he says.

However, if the loved one lives nearby or is someone you’d like to see in person, you may want to engage them more directly and explain how you feel.

“It all boils down to how their behavior affects you – and developing civil ways to communicate your needs without trying to convince them of something,” he says.

How to communicate effectively

Flanagan recommends using “I” statements rather than “you” statements when discussing COVID safety. For example, he suggests saying something like, “I value wearing a mask for everyone’s health and safety. When you don’t wear one, it makes me uncomfortable. Would you be willing to wear a mask when we get together?”

If they say no, you may need to reevaluate how you spend time with them – perhaps you set up a virtual get-together instead.

When someone’s behavior impacts your life and boundaries, it’s important to express your feelings around these issues, says Flanagan.

“Be clear about what you’re comfortable with and enforce your boundaries,” he says.

Have a plan when meeting in person

Flanagan recommends having a plan when visiting with people outside your household.

“It’s really important to be on the same page with people in your household,” he says. “Just like you’d have a discussion about what to do if there was a fire in your home, talk about COVID safety.”

Then, talk with the people you plan to see who live outside your household. Let them know you’re taking COVID seriously and ask if they’ll follow social distancing, handwashing and mask guidelines. 

If you go for a visit and are in a situation that violates your boundaries, communicate those boundaries diplomatically and firmly.

“Be polite, but communicate that this is different than what you expected,” suggests Flanagan. “You could say, ‘In light of everything that’s happening, we don’t think there are enough precautions for our family to engage and be safe.’”

If they still don’t take COVID guidelines seriously, you can politely leave.

“You’re perfectly within your right to do so,” he says. “It all comes back to communication. Ensure family members that you love them, but also value safety and health as a top priority. When you frame it that way, it’s less about hurting your loved one’s feelings and more about protecting your well-being.” 

Celebrating the holidays during COVID

If you know your family or friends aren’t taking protocols seriously, you might consider celebrating holidays elsewhere, suggests Flanagan.

“If you’re uncomfortable, it’s not going to be a good holiday interaction,” he says. “If you have differing views of what’s safe, perhaps find other ways to interact. It’s about setting yourself up for success. If you know people will be stubborn, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

Communicate with family and friends ahead of time so you know where they stand on the issues.

“Try to be compassionate,” says Flanagan. “People respond to threats and challenges in different ways.”

But remember, it’s healthy and smart to set boundaries.

“Make sure you’re aligned with your personal values,” he says. “People might feel sad when you set boundaries or decline to visit, but you have to prioritize your and your household’s health and well-being.”

If you do visit with people outside your household, remember to:

  • Wear a mask.
  • Watch your distance.
  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Meet outside whenever possible.

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