How to tell your family you're not coming home for the holidays

How to tell your family you're not coming home for the holidays
Maskot/Getty Images
  • Confronting loved ones like your parents can be difficult, especially if it involves breaking tradition or differing views about coronavirus-pandemic safety measures.
  • Psychologists told Insider the best way to break the news is to come prepared with clear boundaries and express them. You could also come with suggestions for alternative ways to celebrate.
  • Expect emotional responses from your loved ones, but keep your tone matter-of-fact.

Breaking tradition with your family can feel daunting, especially when it comes to the holidays.

But with coronavirus cases spiking across the country, it's natural to reconsider any plans to get together for Christmas next week.

In fact, CDC officials today urged all Americans to reconsider traveling to another person's household for the holidays, whether it's a walk or a flight away, a guidance that mirrors the one the agency gave for Thanksgiving.

"We're alarmed," Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC's COVID-19 incident manager, said on a November 19 call announcing the guidance cautioning against Thanksgiving travel. "COVID-19 is turning out to be quite a formidable foe."

With Christmas quickly approaching, it's crucial you break the news of your absence soon.


You can't predict how the conversation with your loved ones will go, but you can come prepared to express your needs in a clear manner, cope with emotional responses, and suggest alternatives, Julie L. Pike, a licensed psychologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, told Insider.

Identify what's important to you so you can communicate that clearly to your loved-ones

Before calling your family to break the news, reflect on your mental and emotional needs so you can effectively communicate them.

"I think the most important thing is to have a clear understanding of the boundaries we have set, what is OK, and what is not OK," Pike told Insider. "That may look different for everyone, because everyone has a slightly different assessment of what is safe and what is not."

That could mean you only feel comfortable meeting up with your parents if you eat outside, stopping by your cousin's home for a brief and socially-distanced greeting, or skipping a flight or drive home altogether.

How to use 'I' statements to soften the blow

Once you've collected your thoughts, let your family know using "I" statements, which can help keep the conversation more matter-of-fact and less anger-driven, Pike said.


She suggested saying something like, "I understand that you'd love to have the family together, and so would I. Unfortunately, I simply don't feel safe and I am not willing to risk it. I certainly hope you'll understand, and that we can make plans for another time."

These "I" statements keep the focus on your feelings, which are harder to dispute or invalidate compared to a response like, "Articles I've read online say it's safer this way."

"The most important thing about boundaries is that we can set them without anger or trying to convince other people of the validity of our needs," said Pike.

Expect emotional responses, but don't reciprocate

It's possible your family will take the news well, but there's still a chance they could become upset when you announce your upcoming absence.

If that's the case, do your best to remain calm and stick with your boundaries reminding your family that you feel safer skipping this year's gathering. You don't need to explain your feelings because, "simply being clear on what is true for us is the most important thing," according to Pike.


"Everyone gets to have their feelings, and we don't need to fix it for them," Pike previously told Insider. "Usually people just need a little bit of time to process their disappointment or sadness."

Instead of taking a family member's response personally, remind yourself why you made the decision you did, Timothy Strauman, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, said in a webcast for journalists March 8.

"You probably won't agree on the best strategies. You probably won't agree on everything, but it's possible to get through this by focusing on 'everything I'm doing, I'm doing too care for myself, to care for the people that I love," said Strauman during the webinar.

Suggest alternative plans

To cushion the potential blow, come prepared with alternative plans, like a Zoom call on Thanksgiving Day or ideas for a family gathering at a safer time.

"We care for each other, today and every day of this COVID-19 crisis, by keeping each other safe and reaching out in whatever ways are available to us while we wait for the time, soon, when we can return to more familiar ways of being together," Strauman told Insider.