This month, we’re talking about difficult conversations with children. And today, we’re exploring the topic of how to talk to children when a decision is made to not have contact with family members, a question submitted by one of our readers.
So many families are sharing the challenges of the past few years with maintaining healthy relationships with family members. At least in the US, conflict was happening along political lines with the 2016 election and is continuing now with what each person in a family feels is safe regarding Covid (masks, vaccines, social distancing), among other things that are politically charged. Medical freedom and safety are such charged issues the world over right now and what governments are doing or not doing to help keep us safe during this global pandemic are heated in many places.
That’s hard enough to navigate, but what do we do when we disagree within our families, with parents/grandparents, friends? What happens when the splinters become so big that we can’t have contact with family members? How do we talk to our kids about these complex issues?
Angie in Washington, USA wrote in with this question:
“I am having a big conflict right now with my extended family, specifically my parents. I have some medical issues that I’m working through, and my doctor told me that right now is not a good time for me to be vaccinated for Covid. My family members are giving me a very hard time, and some are refusing to see me in person, even with masks and social distancing, until I’m fully vaccinated. My job is also at risk right now because I work for a US government agency (mostly from home) and there is a mandate now requiring vaccination for Covid. I’ve been isolating myself most of the time anyway because I am at risk, and my kids are homeschooling. How do I handle this situation with my family members? What do I tell my kids? They’re 5 and 9.”
Rebecca’s Response: Hi, Angie. I’m sorry to hear this is happening for you right now. It sounds super stressful all around with your own health issues and with the stress around your work with a mandate that doesn’t support what you are working on with your own doctor right now. And to add family member stress on top of that, I can imagine it feels really overwhelming. I can hear that you are making the best decision you can for yourself with the information you have working with your doctor. I can also hear that you taking your health seriously and are taking precautions to lower your risk of getting sick.
I can imagine that your family members are really worried about you and your health. The public health information being repeated over and over is all about the vaccine being the only way to stay safe right now and if you’re not doing that, I can imagine that your family is feeling afraid for you and for themselves. If they are unable to hear you and they don’t feel safe being around you, it’s important to respect that boundary. That may mean for some time that you don’t see each other face to face.
Limited or No Contact?
Depending on where you feel the boundaries need to go and the hostility level of the relationship, you may or may not be able to maintain contact via phone or video chat (FaceTime, Zoom, etc.). Navigating that part of the relationship is essential for you before you say anything to your children. You may need additional support for yourself to find your way through this part, especially if you are having a lot of feelings about it all.
If you are unable to have any conversations that feel good right now, you may need a no contact boundary for a time. That doesn’t mean it is forever, but that this is what is needed for right now. Your family members may or may not suggest the boundary here, but if they don’t and it’s needed, please do this for yourselves to preserve your relationship from continued assaults.
No Contact Boundaries
If there is a no contact boundary, whether that comes from you or them, it’s important that you tell your children that they won’t be seeing or talking to their grandparents/other family members for a while. Depending upon their relationship and the frequency of contact in the past, it will be important to communicate what will be changing for them. Young children don’t need all the details about what’s happening. Simple explanations like, “We are having a disagreement and we love each other so we aren’t going to let each other continue to be hurt. We aren’t going to talk for a little while and I’ll let you know when/if that changes. This means that we won’t be getting together for dinner on Tuesdays and you won’t be having your sleepover at the end of the month.”
And the most important part is to make room for their feelings about the changes. If that means there will be no contact when it is expected, like a planned meal or sleepover, you’ll need to make room for how they feel about that.
Limited Contact Boundaries and Communication
If your family decides to have some contact, or an exception will be made to have a conversation or gathering on a specific day, that also needs to be talked about so that everyone knows what to expect. Navigating limited contact means talking in advance about what topics are off limits for time together and what that time together might look like. It might mean that there are FaceTime calls once a week only with the kids in the meantime or calls together as a family. It might mean that talking about your job is off limits, along with your personal medical journey, so that you can focus on spending time together in a situation where everyone feels safe.
Respect is Key!
It’s important not to throw the other family members under the proverbial bus because you are not seeing eye to eye on this issue. Respecting other’s needs is important to model, even if those needs are different from yours. You can also model that disagreeing doesn’t mean that the other person is bad or wrong or that you have to give up what you feel you need, either. This is an opportunity to teach your children that healthy relationships are about finding a way through these difficult times with the intention of having connection. If they’re not safe people, it may be that there is now a long overdue boundary in place to keep yourself and your children safe.
Remember: Your Children are Learning from You
Remember that you’re modeling what a healthy relationship looks like. You’re modeling boundaries, self-care, support, respect for others with different beliefs, communication, making room for others’ feelings, and how to come back into connection after a disconnection. And there may be some of these skills that you need to learn for yourself in the process. We all can learn through challenges in our relationships and learn how to do things better than the previous generation. It is needed now more than ever!
Do you need to have a difficult conversation with your kids? Have a question about it? Share below and we’ll do our best to answer your questions in upcoming blog posts and newsletters.