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My Parents Are COVID Deniers. How Do I Repair Our Relationship?

The same fear that makes us anxious can also make us angry.

by Gretchen Brown
December 16, 2020 | Love
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Dear Ask Me Instead,

I am young-ish (31) and my parents are in their 70s and very immunocompromised. They are very sadly part of the camp that thinks COVID-19 isn't serious and that it's just like any other cold. 

Just before Thanksgiving, my husband, myself and my 2-year-old all tested positive for COVID. We were going to see my parents for Thanksgiving dinner, but obviously canceled. When we called them to cancel, and also asked them to quarantine for two weeks because they saw us when we could have been contagious, they thought we were lying to get out of family dinner. They also refused to quarantine.

There aren't enough forehead slap emojis for this.

Anyway, I'm having a hard time imagining how our relationship will recover. My parents and I have an otherwise very close relationship, and to have them not believe we got sick with COVID is so painful for us. And I certainly don't want to drag out a fight because our toddler is constantly asking when we can see them again.

Any advice on how to navigate family relationships surrounding COVID?

- Millennial Who Survived COVID and Has Crazy Boomer Parents 


Dear Millennial Survivor,

There's a reason people believe conspiracy theories, and it's not because they're unintelligent or reckless. 

Often, it's because things are scary, and believing a conspiracy theory is easier than resigning to the fact that we don't have a lot of easy answers to get us out of this mess.

I can't speak on your parents' motivations for not believing this virus is deadly, but I think it's important to lead with empathy. 

Anxiety can cause our brains to whip up all kinds of false explanations, especially when misinformation is everywhere. It's easier to blame someone — like the governor, or Anthony Fauci — than believe you're actually in danger.

Sometimes, the same fear that makes us anxious can also make us angry.

It feels like everyone is angry right now, so easily set off. Politicians. Celebrities. That random man in the grocery store parking lot you accidentally cut off but you didn't see them, you swear!

It's so disappointing to not be taken seriously. To make a choice with the best intentions and to be met with anger. 

I'm so glad you and your family are safe and healthy. 

There are no easy decisions right now. You did what you felt was necessary to protect your family, and for your parents to believe anything else is a betrayal of your trust. 

Your parents don't need to believe the virus is real — even though that by itself is dangerous — but they do need to believe you made your decision to skip dinner with the best intentions.

I'm unsure if it will be easy to change their mind on the first part. But I think you will be able to repair this relationship with the second piece in mind.

This time apart from your parents has probably been a healthy thing. Conflict is never productive when it's purely emotional, and having some time to cool down can help.

That said, this conflict isn't reason to wall off from them — even your toddler knows this. But I also urge you not to drop it if your goal is to truly repair the relationship.

When you feel ready, plan a family dinner again. This could be in a week, a month, or a few months — you know what feels right.

Ask your parents if they'd be willing to talk about Thanksgiving, and hear your side of the story. Emphasize your personal feelings here — how you felt when they assumed you were lying. How important your relationship with them is. How you had the best intentions in mind. Lead with "I felt," not "you did."

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Credit: Ben Malley/TPT and Ded Pixto/Adobe

If they get aggressive, or start interrupting, stay calm. (This is easier said than done, I know.) Say, "I know you may disagree with me, but can you hear me out?"

Then, give them time to tell their side of the story, even if you feel like you've heard it enough. And actually listen actively — you may learn something new.

If things escalate, or the conversation stops feeling productive, it's OK to drop it. Come back to it a different day if you feel like it's not yet resolved. Return to it as much as you need. 

If you are as close as you say, it's important that you have a relationship where you feel like you can really share how you're feeling, and not live with a smile plastered on for the sake of avoiding conflict.

Sometimes it's hard for parents to see that their adult child is a sentient, independent being who can make their own decisions. 

It might have felt like a role reversal for them to have their child cancel a gathering they were really looking forward to.

But it's also an adult lesson for them to know that being told "no" isn't always a personal rejection, an insult. Sometimes things can't be the way they've always been, and while that's upsetting, it's life.

To get through this year (and next year, probably) we have to embrace the fact that life looks a little different given the circumstances — whether or not you believe in the severity of this virus. 

But the things that make life grand — our health, our given or chosen family, our happiness — those are still possible, and always worth celebrating. And we can still do that.

Maybe you'll celebrate Thanksgiving in January instead. Make a big turkey and cranberry sauce straight out of a can and a little bowl of pickled herring no one touches (maybe that's just my family).

Traditions bring us comfort, and that's enough to make them matter. 

Finding a way and a day to celebrate safely is the key.

Have a life dilemma?

Email Ask Me Instead at [email protected] or send us a note using this form. All submissions are anonymous.

For more good advice, visit the Ask Me Instead collection.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brownis an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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