Having hard conversations with grandparents, friends, and neighbors has been a common theme across mom groups on Facebook and even in my own family and friend group texts. It makes sense, as we’ve never done this before. We’re weary, fatigued, and may feel hug-starved from those we love. For grandparents with a new grandbaby or who are used to seeing their grandchildren often, the stay-at-home orders and distancing guidelines can feel like true torture.
Side note to the grandparents: we get it. We love you.; you love us. You miss us; you miss our kids. We miss you too. But what did you always tell us? It’s for your own good. Following the guidelines means we hopefully all stay well and get through this quickly.
As a parent, what can you do when your parents, in-laws, family, or friends’ ideas about safety don’t align with yours?
“The varying interpretations of the threat are a common cause of conflict and distress in our closest relationships right now,” said Elizabeth McCarthy, LCPC, a Chicago-based psychotherapist who focuses on helping her clients gain a better understanding of themselves and their relationships with others. In our conversation, she shared a number of thoughtful insights and tips for having these hard but necessary conversations with those we love.
Know Your Own Definition of Health and Safety
It might be helpful to do this simple fill-in-the-blank exercise to better articulate your family’s definition. “Health, safety, and security in our family mean … ” It could mean “staying at home with no visitors,” “allowing for one trusted childcare provider,” or “following our pediatrician’s recommendations,” etc.
The answers will likely be different for every individual and may evolve as new information is learned. But once you’re aligned on what health and safety mean for your family, it will be easier to filter out activities and situations that don’t meet your definition.
“You know yourself better than anyone else,” McCarthy said. “What’s key is trusting your gut and intuition on what feels right when it comes to health, safety, and security for you and your family.”
Acknowledge and Validate How Hard This Is
When faced with a situation that may fall outside your family’s definition of safety and security, start with curiosity. Learn more before reacting with judgment. If it still doesn’t feel right for your family, acknowledge and validate the difficulty with your friend or family member.
“These are the people most important to us, so it makes sense that it is painful and disorientating when their definitions of safety don’t align with ours,” McCarthy said. It’s OK and helpful to acknowledge how hard it is.
She also suggested leading with “I” statements versus “you” statements to have a positive discussion. For example, opening with your own feelings, “I feel scared because …” can be more productive than, “You are scaring me because …”
“‘You’ statements tend to put people on the defense,” McCarthy said.
Discomfort Doesn’t Mean You’re Doing it Wrong
While validation can help open the conversation, it’s not a cure-all for conflict. It’s important to set realistic expectations and expect there may be some pushback.
“These conversations are going to feel clunky and uncomfortable, but discomfort is not an indicator that you’re doing something wrong,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy recommended stating what is truest first. For example, I love you and care about you, and I want to be with you too, yet this feels right for my family and me right now.
She added for those who are used to being peacekeepers (Enneagram nines, I see you) and those used to sitting in their own discomfort for the sake of harmony, this time is going to be especially difficult.
“This crisis has forced people into a high stakes time to set and maintain boundaries, [which is] something I work on for years with my clients,” McCarthy said.
Validate Your Own Choices
Again, you know best what feels safe and comfortable for you. And McCarthy stressed the most important thing parents can do for children amidst this crisis is to help them feel safe and secure. If you push yourself into something you deem unsafe or uncomfortable, your kids will pick up on it. Talk to your partner if you aren’t fully aligned and trust yourself. This is so hard, but right now, it’s for all of our own good.