The Simplest Way to Tell Your Family You’re Not Coming to Thanksgiving (Without a Blow-Out Fight)

thanksgiving and covid 728

You had it all worked out: You'd get a COVID-19 test the week ahead, wait for results and then, assuming everything was a-OK, you'd drive through the night to get home for Thanksgiving. But the closer it gets to November 26, the more dire the news has been. A glance at a COVID-19 risk calculator isn't looking too pretty and the CDC is warning that even small household gatherings are contributing to the rise in cases. All arrows point to Thanksgiving and COVID being a dangerous equation. So, as much as you've dearly missed your family, a bleak chat with your friend who works in an overwhelmed hospital left you with your decision: You're skipping Thanksgiving this year. 

The only problem? Despite your rational thinking, your parents will not be onboard. After all, they've been wearing masks and keeping their distance at outdoor social gatherings. How could a small family gathering with a few aunts, uncles and cousins harm anyone?

So how do you opt out of Thanksgiving stress-free and without a nuclear fight? We chatted with psychotherapist and leadership coach Sarah Greenberg about the simplest way to communicate your prerogative with your family members who might not agree with you. Here's what she told us.

1. Be clear in your own decisions

Look, it’s hard to share news that we know will disappoint. But Greenberg warns to be careful that you’re not secretly invested in convincing your family to agree with you or relying on them to validate your choice. “If you are,” she says, “your message may come off as confusing, uncertain or unclear.” Instead, make sure you're steadfast in your mind about what your decision is and why you are making it before you communicate it to people who might debate it. That might look something like this: I have decided not to come home for Thanksgiving because science and experts say COVID risks are too high. 

2. Let them know the choice isn’t easy

Saying something like, “I thought a lot about this, and it’s very difficult because I love our time together so much...” lets your family know this is hard for you too, explains Greenberg. “Remember, one of the functions of emotions is that they let others know what you need and help us connect human to human. You can be clear without being robotic.”

3. Speak to shared values

You and your family may not agree on your decision to not see them in person, but, says Greenberg, “You probably do share some of the values upon which you are making the decision. Values like safety, caring for one and another and being a good citizen.” Lean into what you can agree on instead of what you definitely do not.   

4. Recognize what you can control and accept what you can’t

Per Greenberg, just because you’re making the right choice, doesn’t mean it will feel good to your family—or even to you! You can control your decision to not travel, but you can’t control your family's reaction and response. “One way to love yourself and love others is to honor your decision by sticking to it, and honor their right to choose how they respond.” Long story short: Greenberg says that trying to control another person’s reaction is “a wonderful exercise in futility, but not an effective relational strategy.” 

5. Present alternatives to safely connect

Although you’re not inviting your family to weigh in on your decision to skip in-person contact this year, Greenberg suggests that you can invite a lively conversation about safe alternatives. “Come prepared with a few suggestions. Examples include gathering over Zoom, contributing funds towards a shared cause or doing a gift exchange by mail.”

Your Skipping Thanksgiving Script

With Greenberg's five helpful tips in mind, here's what a possible script might look like when communicating with your family.

You: So, I wanted to let you that after careful thought and warnings from the state, I've decided not to come home for Thanksgiving. This was an impossibly difficult decision for me, as I cherish family time together, and I'm going to be really sad this holiday.

Mom: No, no, no. We already talked about this. We are so safe and your aunt and uncle have been wearing masks.

You: That makes me happy to know you guys are taking this seriously. Everyone's safety and health is more important than one meal together. So, I'm set in my decision.

Mom: You're overreacting! Jim [your parents' doctor friend they *always* reference] told us we'll be fine! 

You: I hope that's the case, but I'm still opting out this year. But I was thinking since we usually bake pecan pie together, we can cook together the day before over Zoom?

Mom: Hm. I hate Zoom. 

You: OK, I'll call you tomorrow with some more ideas—because I'm gonna miss being with everyone too. 

Mom: Fine. OK, love you. 

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Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...