A family gathering outdoors for Christmas all wearing masks to protect against COVID-19Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Bailey Mariner
  • The current spike in COVID-19 cases and the rapidly spreading Omicron variant has many in the United States questioning their holiday travel plans and gatherings.
  • A recent survey shows that many people in the United States were already planning to be cautious over the holidays, even before the new variant surfaced.
  • Setting boundaries can help with difficult conversations amid uncertainty, especially around different vaccination statuses and safety protocols.

Nearly 2 years into the pandemic, the latest surge in COVID-19 cases in the United States fueled by cold weather has roused a familiar uneasiness that dovetails with the arrival of the holidays.

As the Omicron variant spread rapidly in New York and New Jersey, mask mandates and other restrictions were swiftly reinstated around the country — just as a return to “normalcy” had seemed within reach.

Still, holiday travel is booming, despite the looming variant.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned of a surge in Omicron infections by January and recommends booster shots for adults over age 18. Those 16 and older can also receive a booster. Boosters should be received at least 6 months after completion of a 2-dose series or at least 2 months after a 1-dose shot.

Of the more than 204 million people in the United States who are fully vaccinated, about 30% have received a booster.

If you’re weighing whether to rethink your holiday plans or are anxious about gathering with loved ones who don’t share the same vaccine status, you can find out how setting boundaries can help you stay safe.

As new and breakthrough COVID-19 cases continue to rise, many people wonder whether it’s still a good idea to partake in holiday festivities.

For instance, a national survey published in November 2021 from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center shows that:

  • half of people in the United States intend to ask about their guests’ vaccination status
  • nearly 75% plan to celebrate with only their immediate household

Regardless of your vaccine status, it’s still a good idea to take precautions to help minimize the spread.

“While Omicron is certainly causing anxiety and concern as the holidays approach, the same precautions that lowered your risk of transmission throughout the pandemic are still our best tools today,” Iahn Gonsenhauser, MD, chief quality and patient safety officer and assistant professor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said in an email.

And while the same rules apply, we’ve also come a long way since 2020. In addition to social and physical distancing and mask-wearing, we have vaccines and booster shots. Also, there is rapid testing, which can help detect new transmissions.

“The difference between this year and last is the availability of the vaccine and booster,” Gonsenhauser said.

The CDC advises the following essential ways to slow the spread of COVID-19:

  • vaccination against COVID-19
  • wearing a mask that covers your nose and mouth
  • staying 6 feet away from people from other households
  • avoiding crowds and enclosed indoor spaces
  • taking COVID-19 tests
  • washing your hands often with soap and water or hand sanitizer

The CDC also notes that people with weakened immune systems may not be completely protected from COVID-19 transmission, even if they are fully vaccinated, so extra precautions are needed.

As one of the most polarizing topics of modern times, millions remain divided over the safety and efficacy of vaccines and boosters, which can be linked to COVID-19 misinformation, according to a 2021 study.

If members of your family are unvaccinated, you can avoid heated debates and arguments by putting a plan into place that everyone is comfortable with, according to Mayra Mendez, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and a psychotherapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.

Making “comfort-level decisions” that everyone agrees on can allow you to continue to engage with your family and maintain positive connections. The key is to try to respect each other’s differences, even when you strongly disagree with them.

“The objective should not be to change anybody’s mind to influence anybody because all of that just becomes a political mess,” Mendez told Psych Central. “You don’t want to get to that point, especially when you value those relationships and want to maintain them.”

Agreeing to disagree, according to Mendez, means that you’re holding space for yourself while allowing the other person to have their space. And even if they can’t offer the same in return, this approach can help you be in a place of openness and acceptance while still maintaining your safety measures and comfort level.

When the focus is on staying engaged and connected with your family, making a mutually acceptable plan can become easier.

When deciding on a plan for your family gathering, it’s helpful to consider the most vulnerable person in the room.

You might respectfully ask certain family members to wear masks or decide that not everyone should gather face-to-face. Some loved ones may be invited to join the festivities via Zoom, or you could be the one who chooses to participate virtually instead. Regardless of the plan that your family agrees on, it’s vital that everyone feels they’re being respected.

“Everybody has to make their own comfort-level decisions and establish boundaries — whether it’s for other family members, your children, or your 89-year-old grandmother,” Mendez said.

The holidays are a notoriously stressful time, even without a pandemic.

A recent survey from Michigan Medicine showed that 1 in 4 parents set unrealistic expectations about the holidays. Also, 1 in 5 parents said their holiday stress had a negative impact on their child’s enjoyment of the season.

Here are a few ways to take care of your mental health and avoid pandemic-induced holiday stress.

Cancel if you need to

A simple way to mitigate holiday stress this season if you’re uneasy about your safety is to opt-out.

There are other ways to stay connected and engaged with your loved ones while adhering to your comfort levels. For instance, you might make time for extra phone calls or video chats.

Of course, deciding to stay put when you were excited to see your parents or grandparents, maybe for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, can be an emotional experience.

“I think sadness and guilt are normal, but you do have to cope with it and continue on for your own sake and your family’s sake,” Mendez said. “You can mitigate feelings of guilt by having an alternative plan that helps you stay engaged.”

Communicate with compassion

Active listening through an empathic lens can be a helpful exercise for anyone and especially when you hold a different opinion to a loved one.

Mendez suggests asking open-ended questions on specific data points, issues, and beliefs. If you and your loved one are open and receptive, you can listen to each others’ viewpoints, even when you fundamentally disagree. The key is knowing when to stop before a productive dialogue becomes a heated debate.

“Active listening is pulling out some of the words that make sense to you and then reflecting back what you hear to the other person and leaving it at that,” Mendez said, adding that active listening is more effective than saying, “I understand,” because you’re not living the experience of the other person.

Here’s an example: “I hear you that you’re afraid, and I can respect that.”

Practice acceptance

Accepting that you can’t change the viewpoints of loved ones is a testament to the fact that your love for them will not change, despite what they believe in. It can be a helpful exercise, in general, to remember how different we all are, even those of us who come from the same DNA.

“We have to accept that things are different — and also take solace in the idea that this pandemic isn’t forever,” Mendez said. “We have to accept others as they are, especially when we have so much love for them — and, hopefully, they accept us, too.

For Mendez, acceptance is a practice of cultivating an understanding of our differences by listening empathically to each others’ stories while also having the opportunity to tell your story.

“There isn’t a mutual understanding, but there’s a mutual respect for the acceptance of two different opinions,” Mendez said. “And then we can still coexist.”

Setting physical and emotional boundaries with friends and family members helps prioritize our mental health.

“Navigating family dynamics can be challenging, even during the best of times,” Meghan Marcum, PsyD, chief psychologist at AMFM Healthcare, told Psych Central. “This task has become even more difficult thanks to the pandemic and differing views about vaccination, facial coverings, and gatherings.”

Clear boundaries can provide a baseline for interacting with your family. Here, Marcum shares a few do’s and don’ts for communicating your boundaries to others.

What to do

  • If you’re concerned about hosting a gathering at your home where friends and family may not be vaccinated, respectfully ask them about their status.
  • Clearly indicate your safety protocols with guests (i.e., indoor or outdoor? Face coverings or social distancing?)
  • Consider your own comfort level at events outside your home, and ask the host questions about what they intend to do to keep everyone safe. If you’re uncomfortable attending, you might just stop by briefly or politely decline.

What not to do

  • It helps not to expect others to adjust to your personal preferences. The best course of action may be to modify your own behavior.
  • Avoid assuming that everyone follows the CDC’s recommended safety guidelines.

With cases spiking around the country, it’s helpful to keep in mind there’s only so much we can control.

How you spend the remainder of 2021 is ultimately up to you. When it comes to your closest ties, try to focus on conversations that find common ground rather than cause a permanent rupture in the relationship.

The acceptance route isn’t easy, but doing so helps us continue to have loving, connected relationships with family members whose opinions may always differ from ours.