Ask a Therapist: How Can I Deal With Pressure to See Family for the Holidays?

Stay firm when people try to take you on guilt trips.

 Verywell / CSong

In the “Ask a Therapist” series, I’ll be answering your questions about all things mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with a mental health condition, coping with anxiety about a life situation, or simply looking for a therapist's insight, submit a question. Look out for my answers to your questions every Thursday in the Healthy Mind newsletter.

Our Reader Asks

I don’t feel it’s safe to travel to my parents' house for the holidays due to the pandemic, but my siblings and their families are still going and they don't understand my decision. How can I get them to understand?

Amy's Answer

It's not easy to tell your family you won't be seeing them, but it's important to do what you think is safest. You might say, "I don't feel getting together is best for everyone, but I can't wait to see you again when we can."

Be Kind But Firm

Holidays during the pandemic aren't easy. It's challenging not to see loved ones, to tell them you can't see them, and it's even more challenging when everyone else plans on gathering without you.

To explain your decision to stay home to your family, you might start by just being direct and honest and say what you said in your question.

It sounds likely that your family isn't going to simply accept that answer, however. They may pour on the guilt when you decline to attend. So it is important to have a canned response that will help you know what to say when they try to get you to change your mind.

You might keep it simple by saying something like, “I understand you don’t agree with our decision. We’d love to get together too but it's not going to happen this holiday season.”

You might even explain that you can’t wait to get together in the future when things are safe—and that by not getting together this year you’re making it more likely that everyone will be healthy and able to see each other for many more years to come.

Acknowledge the Disappointment

Your family might be feeling a little slighted that you won't be attending. Acknowledging that you're disappointment you won't all be together might help them see that you're sad too. And saying you'll miss them might reassure them that your absence really is about physical safety—not lack of interest.

Offer Alternative Ways to Interact

Offer a way to celebrate the holidays without being together physically. For example, you might ask to video chat with everyone when they’re celebrating. If you exchange gifts, you might watch one another open them on video.

You might talk about scheduling a special time for your kids to video chat with their grandparents as well.

Ask your family for their ideas, too. Say something like, "What can we do to make the best of the circumstances we find ourselves in? I'd still like to make the holidays the best I can."

Set Boundaries and Take Care of Yourself

If they attempt to continue and try to guilt you into attending, you may need to set a boundary and end the conversation. Say something like, “This isn’t a helpful conversation right now so I’m going to go.” Then, try talking again another time.

Honor whatever it is you’re feeling—sadness, frustration, anxiety, and perhaps even guilt. It's important to take care of those feelings so you can still enjoy the holidays with your partner and your kids.

You might develop a simple little mantra that you can repeat to yourself when feelings of guilt creep in—like, “I’m doing this because I love my family.” 

In the meantime, try to devote your time and energy to making this holiday season the best you can despite the circumstances. You might honor some family traditions and even create a new one or two. 

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.