But despite the vaccine’s widespread availability and demonstrated effectiveness at preventing the disease, many American adults still don’t want to get the shot. According to data collected by U.S. Census Bureau in late April, 18.2 percent of Americans are hesitant about receiving the vaccine, stating either “definitely not,” “probably not,” or that they’re “unsure” when asked if they will be inoculated. The main reasons cited for this resistance are concern over side effects and lack of trust in the vaccines and the government. And despite the recent FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, reports of vaccination hesitancy aren’t necessarily likely to disintegrate.
But the cost of not getting vaccinated has the effect of keeping the virus in circulation for longer, putting others at risk—particularly more vulnerable populations, like those who are immunocompromised, and those who may not be able to get vaccinated, like children under 12 years old. And when family members are COVID vaccine hesitant, your relationships may also be at risk.
“An issue can arise when you are vaccinated, and family members or friends who are not vaccinated or refuse to get vaccinated would like to see you,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. “This situation may affect gatherings because vaccinated people can potentially still get COVID-19. Although symptoms are usually mild, vaccinated individuals want to surround themselves with other vaccinated people since this is considered low-risk.” This is also in keeping with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) official recommendations.
Telling a family member they can’t attend a wedding or any other gathering, for that matter, unless they’ve received the vaccine could open the door for a range of unpleasant interactions, spanning from an awkward conversation to a larger rift—and, it may be hard for your loved ones to accept the reality of the situation.
Here, mental health professionals offer their tips to help you navigate talking with family members who are hesitant about getting the COVID vaccine.
1. Decide your boundaries and anticipate your family’s response
Before you have any conversation with you family, first decide where you would like to draw the line for you and your immediate household. Are all gatherings with unvaccinated family members off limits? Do you feel comfy with an outdoor, distanced, or masked get-together? Once you’ve decided on your boundaries, you can share the news with your family.
Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD, clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and head of research at the Mental Health Coalition, says that if you plan for an uncomfortable conversation (which is likely), you’ll be better able to stand firm. “This is because in high-tension conversations like this, emotions can run high and feelings can get hurt,” Dr. Torres-Mackie says. “If you are worried about setting a boundary around not seeing family members who are unvaccinated, chances are you might be tempted to ease that boundary because of discomfort.”
Try reminding yourself that the boundaries that you set for yourself are valid and important, and then communicate them to your family with empathy.
2. Stick to a script
“Express both that you cannot see them and that you wish that you could, and if it makes you sad to not be able to see them—share that with them,” says Dr. Torres-Mackie. Another option would be to say: “We would love to see you (or have you attend), but we are going to wait, because it’s important we are not exposed.”
“If an unvaccinated family member or friend responds in a hostile manner, explain to them in a calm manner why it’s important for you to be surrounded by vaccinated people,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Then, offer alternative dates or safe options to see them, whether that is through Zoom, six feet apart at a park, or waiting until further notice from the CDC,” Dr. Hafeez adds.
By framing it this way, you are stating the importance of setting boundaries for everyone’s safety, rather than a lack of “wanting” your family at the event or missing them.
Another script suggestion from Dr. Hafeez: “We both have the right to make certain decisions, and although we may not agree, we need to respect them.” This way, you remind your family that respect is a two-way street.
3. Keep your judgments to yourself
Telling your family that you think they’re being stupid or stubborn (even if you’ve had those thoughts) isn’t productive—and, as Dr. Hafeez points out, is potentially equally insensitive as their actions. “You may not know everything they have been through this year, or there may be other reasons for not getting vaccinated yet, such as having trouble securing an appointment,” she says.
Instead, she advises using a friendly, warm tone of voice and sticking to the “I” language in your script. This keeps the emphasis on your own needs rather than the ways you disagree with their choices, which could help ease potential feelings of rejection.
“What is not helpful is to show judgment about their decision to not get vaccinated, as this will only put them on the defensive and lead to conflict,” says Dr. Torres-Mackie. It’s okay to save your explanation of why vaccines are important for another conversation.
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