Help with saying “no” to family gatherings this holiday season

During this pandemic, most caregivers are weighing the options and risks of hosting and/or attending in person family gatherings during the holidays. If you are caring for someone, then it is highly likely they are more vulnerable to COVID because of age or underlying condition/s. What if you opt not to host or attend an  in-person family gathering this holiday season? Are you nervous about telling the rest of the family? Prepared for possible pushback?  This blog offers tips that can help with saying “no” to family gatherings this holiday season.

What makes it hard to say “no”

It can be hard to pass up the opportunity to gather with family during the holiday season. The desire and the pressure to attend family gatherings during holidays, isn’t new. Neither is some degree of family drama. This year, the pandemic and varied opinions about all things COVID related, is a channel for some of the drama.

For some, it couldn’t be more obvious that in-person gatherings that bring different households together must be cancelled this year. For others, they are just plain tired of following the rules after 8 months of pandemic-related decisions. And for others again, they don’t take COVID or the need for public health measures seriously at all. This has the potential for a hot mess of tension, conflict, anger, guilt, righteousness between family members.

Saying “no” is particularly hard, because in Dr. Anthony Fauci’s’ words, “You don’t want to be the Grinch that stole the holidays” (whether it is Hanukah, Kwanza, Christmas, or New Year’s).  But what if you have weighed the options and risks and your decision is no to family gatherings? Here is some help with the delicate and emotional decision of saying “no”.

  • Know that you have the right to say “no”.
    • If you are someone who had a hard time saying “no” before COVID, this will call for all the courage, the bravery you can muster. Even with public health guidelines, there may not be a clear right or wrong decision. But there is a right decision for you. And safety concerns are legitimate concerns. You have the right to say “no” without convincing others or defending your decision. Also, the stress and discomfort you may feel saying “no” will still be less than the stress that comes from saying “yes” when you are really feeling “no”.
  •  Be clear with your no/boundary.
    • This is no time to be wishy washy. If you are not clear, you set yourself up to be manipulated, or for negotiating or being talked into agreeing to something that doesn’t feel right for you. If it is new for you to set boundaries, it may help to rehearse with someone, anticipating the different responses to your “no”. Think of it this way: when we can’t say “no”, our yes has no authentic meaning.
  • Include your feelings in your response.
    • It may help to soften the impact if you include how you feel about no family gathering. Examples: “This really sucks”; “ I am really disappointed”; “ I am really going to miss being together”.
  • Stay away from chastising or judging family members for their decision.
    • Making these judgements is inviting conflict. People’s level of personal risk assessment is different. You don’t need to go into detail about why you think its unsafe or risky to gather. Just speak for yourself with “I” and “we” statements for your family. Examples: “I have done a risk assessment and am not comfortable getting together this year”; “I want to be sure I am doing my part in protecting everyone”; “ I can’t wait to see you when it is safe again to gather. Until then, I am following the guidelines”; “We would really love to see everyone but we are saying “no” this year because we aren’t comfortable”; “We really look forward to seeing everyone when the guidelines change and we are given the green light”.
  • Remember you are NOT responsible for how others react to your “no”.
    • You are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings. There may be reactions such as anger, trying to make you feel guilty, or lashing out, calling you paranoid, too careful, alarmist, a sheep (These are all the ones I have heard to date!) It isn’t personal-their reaction is their own and a reflection of their particular perspective and feelings. Avoid slipping into defense or justification. If there is pressure or a strong negative reaction, become a broken record, and simply repeat your initial statement. Or simply repeat, “I/we prefer to be safe over sorry.”
  • Suggest another way to connect
    • Saying “no” to a physical gathering doesn’t have to mean you don’t connect at all. We have already had lots of practice connecting virtually with phone calls and video calls, given we have been living in this pandemic for over 8 months now. There is no point sugar-coating it. Virtual connections will never make up for in-person physical ones but in a pandemic, they are the next best choice.

Hopefully, this upcoming holiday season will be our last one in the context of a pandemic. When you consider and determine your comfort level ahead of time, and adopt some of the above tips, you may more confidently and comfortably say “no” if that is your decision this year.

How are you at setting boundaries, and saying “no”? We would love to hear from you.






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