November 04, 2021

Not Coming Home for the Holidays?

Experts share guidance for navigating difficult conversations with relatives.

Kait Hanson

For the first time this year, Laura Linn Knight will not be traveling to see her family during the holidays.

“We just moved to Scottsdale from the Bay area,” the parenting expert and former elementary school teacher told TODAY Parents, acknowledging her decision to stay at her own home this holiday season.

Knight invited her parents to come to her house so they could all be together — but they also want to stay home due to coronavirus and traveling concerns. Their predicament mirrors that of many families in 2021: Even if we feel safer than we did last year at this time, we’re all still trapped in a global pandemic, and family discussions about COVID-related matters quickly can become more awkward than ever.

Ahead of the holiday season, the Centers for Disease Control is advising people to delay travel until they are fully vaccinated.

“People who are fully vaccinated with an FDA-authorized vaccine or a vaccine authorized for emergency use by the World Health Organization can travel safely within the United States,” the CDC guidelines state.

If you’re anticipating tough conversations with relatives this year, this guide can help you preserve relationships and avoid unnecessary drama.

Why do we feel nervous telling family we will not be traveling home for the holidays?

Dr. Shannon Curry, a clinical psychologist and director of the Curry Psychology Group in Orange County, California, told TODAY that it’s natural to feel nervous before telling family members about canceled travel plans.

“When we tell someone something we anticipate they don’t want to hear or won’t agree with, we risk experiencing conflict, criticism and disappointment,” she said. “These risks are heightened where family is involved. … Nobody wants to be singled out, to be told they are problematic, or that they are ‘ruining’ the holidays.”

Curry explained the concept of “triangulation,” a phenomenon that occurs in many families where problems have been unaddressed between parents or between a parent and child. It’s common for such problems to be projected onto a third person — usually one of the adult children — who becomes a target of criticism.

“This third person serves as a distraction from the larger underlying issue, and is made to feel like the black sheep,” Curry said. “If you, yourself, found yourself at the point of such a triangle, speaking up to say that you’re not comfortable with something can liken itself to drawing a target on your back.”

How to tell your family you will not be traveling home for the holidays

Though she is an adult with children of her own, Knight acknowledged that it is difficult to have conversations like this.

“It’s the same approach that I have with kids when we have to have big conversations and tough conversations,” she said. “Be curious and ask curiosity questions.”

For example, Knight recommended starting the conversation in a way that acknowledges the collective feeling of “missing out.”

“I would say, ‘Hey mom and dad, I’m not able to come home this year for the holidays. What can we do to make it feel really special? I know it’s hard for you for me not to be home, and for me not to be home,'” Knight said.

Other questions Knight suggested include:

  1. Are we going to have a Zoom Thanksgiving a day early?
  2. Are we going to send each other special packages in the mail?

Knight explained that this approach upholds the creation of boundaries.

“You can hold a boundary (with your parents or family) just like you would hold a boundary with a child, but you’re bringing that kindness and empathy to the conversation,” she said.

She said focusing on ways to create a connection helps families to feel less out of touch during this special time of year.

“At the end of the day, we all want to see each other at the holidays,” Knight said. “By bringing a collaborative mindset, you aren’t doing something to them — it becomes an ‘us’ experience.”

How to navigate the holidays when family relationships are strained

Curry noted that traveling home for the holidays when tensions are tight with family can bring an added layer of stress.

“The holidays are ripe for these issues to rear their heads again as we not only fall into old, entrenched family dynamics, but also succumb to the stress of the season,” she said. “No matter how well-intentioned you may have been going in, it’s difficult not to get snippy when mom comments on your weight for the third time after a day wrangling kids and shuffling through crowds.”

Steps for setting boundaries about traveling home for the holidays

Like Knight, Curry explained the importance of setting boundaries when talking to family about traveling during the holiday season.

Curry suggested using a “gentle start-up” to begin the conversation.

  1. Start with “I feel” and name the emotion, not what you’re thinking or what they’ve done wrong.
  2. Explain why you feel that way, keeping the focus on yourself (not blaming or attempting to describe their intentions).
  3. State what you need, and then give the other person an opportunity to meet your need, even if it’s just by understanding you.

“Be careful to state a need that is something they can do, rather than something you want the other person to not do,” Curry explained. “Give them a chance to shine for you.”

How to explain you are not traveling home over COVID concerns

As an example, Curry offered this template of what to say if COVID is affecting your travel plans:

Mom, I’ve been feeling really nervous about COVID ever since my friend was hospitalized. Getting on a plane while this is still going around just isn’t going to work for us this year. It would mean so much to me to have you and dad tell me that you understand.

“Saying that something just isn’t going to work, or that it’s your ‘thing’ is helpful,” Curry said. “It doesn’t elicit shame or a feeling of being criticized in the other person the same way it would if you said that you’re ‘not comfortable’ with something they’re doing.”