Everyone is going to have to make their own decisions about what will and won't work for their families this year for the holidays. While it's true that we've been doing this all along—making the decisions that best fit our family and our comfort level during the pandemic—the holidays bring it to a new level. As different households discuss how (or whether) to interact with one another for the holidays, there are hard conversations ahead. Families will have to cope with having differing opinions on what is safe and appropriate this year.

Whether you're struggling with being the only relatives bowing out of the big holiday dinner, having to break it to the grandparents that you can't fly out to see them over winter break, or hoping to host a family get-together that others may not plan to attend, you're bound to have some tricky conversations ahead. The good news is, there's a simple strategy for handling those conversations with compassion and kindness, so that long after COVID has passed, your family bonds will still be strong.

Here's how to have respectful and loving conversations about the holidays with your family during the pandemic:

As background for these delicate conversations, remember that everyone is coming to the table with their own concerns, fears and frustrations. It's important to respect those feelings while standing your ground for your own family.

When you're in talks with family members who have different viewpoints than your own, it helps to remember your VALUES:

V: Validate their point of view. It always helps to start by letting people know what they think and feel is completely valid, whether or not it's something you agree with. The reality is, feelings are feelings, and whether or not they make sense to you, everyone is allowed to have their own perspectives.

A: Agree with something they say. Even when you have very different viewpoints, there's usually some small kernel of an idea you can agree with in the person's statement. Maybe you disagree about the dangers of COVID, but you both agree that family matters. Maybe you disagree on the risks of family gatherings, but you both agree that COVID has made things harder this year. Find something you can reach some common ground on and point it out.

L: Let them know why it's right for you. Your job isn't to try to convince your extended family that your view is correct, it's simply to explain why it's the right plan for you this year.

U: Upside. Things will be different this year, and families won't agree on everything, but try to find the upside to the situation, and stay positive. Make sure your tone of voice is positive and point out any silver linings you can find.

E: Everybody wins. When you're having the conversation, it's important to keep in mind your goal shouldn't be to convince them to do things your way. Rather than try to change anyone's mind, consider just looking for some middle ground or a small suggestion that could meet everyone's needs and allow everyone to feel happy.

S: Stand firm. The bottom line is this is a conversation, not a negotiation. Don't feel pressured to do something you don't want to do. It's important to tell your family members that this is what you'll be doing, and remember it's completely okay to have different views about how to best handle things this year.

Curious how it looks when you put it all together? Below are two sample conversations where VALUES can help:

Example 1: You feel uncomfortable joining the big family holiday celebration this year and you want to politely decline attending:

  • Validate: I totally understand what you're saying.
  • Agree: I agree that most people are recovering well from COVID, and our family has been really healthy.
  • Let them know: For us, though, it's really important to limit our exposure to other people, especially since our oldest has asthma.
  • Upside: I love that the rest of you are going to be able to spend the holidays together—you'll have an amazing time!
  • Everybody wins: Maybe we can do a Zoom call so we can see everyone for a few minutes, or plan to come visit in the spring, if everything is calmer by then.
  • Stand firm: I know it's so hard to be apart during the holidays, and we wish we felt comfortable being with everyone, but I think it's best for everyone to just do what they feel most comfortable doing.

Example 2: You're planning a large family gathering and you're talking with some relatives who don't feel comfortable joining this year.

  • Validate: I totally understand what you're saying.
  • Agree: It's true some children have had really rough recoveries, and there is a lot we still don't know.
  • Let them know: For us, we feel like our family is low risk and it's really important we get together with family whenever we can.
  • Upside: I totally understand that it won't work for you, though, and I know you can have a wonderful time celebrating just the five of you!
  • Everybody wins: Maybe we can set up a time for you to join us by Zoom so we can at least see your cute faces for a few minutes!
  • Stand firm: I know it's so hard to know what to do this year, but I agree that it's best for everyone to just do what they feel most comfortable doing. We'll miss seeing you, but completely understand your decision.

Being kind doesn't ensure that the other participants in the conversation will be equally kind, unfortunately. And being polite won't eliminate all your holiday stress. But when you are as kind, loving and respectful as you can possibly be, the knowledge that you did the best you could with a tough conversation can be its own source of comfort and strength. That way you can maintain important family relationships and celebrate this year in the way that is right for your family.