Help! My Loved One Refuses to Practice Social Distancing

Here's what to do when someone you care about refuses to stay home.

Posted Mar 27, 2020

Your young adult son insists on shooting hoops with his friends. Your aging mother heads into the grocery store without gloves or a mask several times a week because she wants to feel normal.

We are living through a dynamic and terrifying global pandemic, one that leaves no aspect of our lives untouched. Our routines have been upended, our finances and employment are uncertain, and we are afraid for the health of ourselves and our loved ones. In addition, this crisis holds the power to wreak havoc on our family relationships. A common pain point I have been hearing a lot about is members of a family not agreeing on expectations for safe behavior. 

The central task of all family relationships is the navigation of differences—differences that are shaped by innumerable factors including gender, age, temperament, role, and life experience. At the best of times, these differences might be a source of amusement or perhaps just mild irritation. During a global health crisis, any sign of daylight between your perspective and your family member’s perspective is likely to become a place of conflict. 

Let’s talk about how to approach someone you love who is not modifying their behavior in light of public health recommendations.

Traps to Avoid

When it comes to navigating an emotionally-charged conversation of this type, the hard thing and the right thing are the same thing. Keep in mind, though, that your loved one is more likely to listen to your concerns if you avoid the following communication traps:

  • Character assassination. You may well see how their current recklessness fits into a long-standing pattern. Nonetheless, conflating their behavior with their character will trigger defensiveness and cross-complaining. 
  • Name-calling. Do not call your loved one arrogant or ignorant. If you feel yourself escalating to that point, call a timeout and step away.
  • Globalizing. Try as hard as you can to avoid saying things like, “You always act like this” or “You never listen to me.” Your loved one will focus on finding exceptions to this sweeping statement rather than focusing on your concerns.
  • Debating facts. It is a sad reality that one’s news source dictates one’s health behaviors, but this is often the case. When you get stuck in an endless loop of sending articles back and forth, you are at risk of losing sight of the relationship concerns.

Here’s how to proceed instead:

Find the Ghost

My work centers on helping people expand relational self-awareness: an ongoing curious and compassionate relationship we have with ourselves that creates the foundation for healthy relationships with the people we love. I encourage you to take some time to explore what specifically is so upsetting for you about your loved one’s choices because pain in the present moment often carries the echoes of pain from many years ago.

Perhaps when you were growing up, your caregivers were very occupied with their own dramas and crises. You felt invisible then and that old feeling is being evoked now. Perhaps because your family struggled to tolerate emotions, you were judged as needy or overly dramatic. When your loved one rolls their eyes at you, that horrible feeling returns. Perhaps your family moved from crisis to crisis when you were young, and you were constantly afraid for everyone’s safety. Whatever you have done in your adult life to ensure that you and your people are safer than you were feels upended and out of control. 

Getting in touch with the old feelings that are being stirred will help you offer yourself some self-compassion as you approach your loved one. You are less likely to slip into reactivity if you are honoring your emotions as valid. In order to help you connect the dots between the past and the present, here are a few questions that can get you started:

  • When I hear that my loved one isn’t practicing social distancing, I feel…
  • It feels like my loved one perceives me as...
  • What I want my loved one to understand is…
  • This dynamic reminds me of how I used to feel when...

Now that you have offered care and validation to yourself, you can turn to your loved one to express your concerns.

Lead with Curiosity

We talked about how criticism will evoke defensiveness, and the conversation will likely end in a stalemate. See what happens if you instead lead with curiosity. Ask your loved one a question like, “What are the things that are hardest for you about this?” And then listen. Often we listen in order to find evidence that will help us build our argument, or we formulate our next declaration while our loved one is talking. Set an intention to simply listen in order to understand. Drop your assumptions. De-center your own experiences and opinions and really just try to see the situation through their eyes. Your willingness to empathize with their challenges may open them to changing their behavior. 

Once you have shown that you authentically care about understanding the story hiding out beneath your family member’s resistance, see what happens when you ask this curious question, “How can I support you to make healthy choices?” Shame is a lousy motivator for change but empathy is a powerful one! 

Use XYZ Statements

Another tool we can use when we bump up against someone’s resistance is by using something therapists call XYZ statements. They sound like this: “When you do X in situation Y I feel Z.” For our purposes here, an XYZ statement might be, “When you continue to hang out with your friends during this time of social distancing, I feel scared and helpless.” Presenting your concerns in this way shifts you from a finger-pointing stance (“You are doing this wrong!”) to a collaborative one (“I am in this with you”). After all, that’s the bottom line, right? You are upset because this person matters to you, and you want them to be around for a long time! Being mindful about your language choices will help bypass power and control issues and convey your message loud and clear.

If All Else Fails, Establish Boundaries

I hope these strategies help you and your family member feel connected, and I hope you are able to make agreements that will maximize safety. If, despite your best efforts, you continue to feel as if you are rowing upstream, it might be time to let go of the oars. At some point, you need to respect the limits of your control and shift away from influence toward self-protection. Self-protection may take two forms: emotional self-protection and physical self-protection.

Emotional self-protection may look like you taking a step back from contact with your loved one. You might say something like, “It’s really hard for me to hear about your choices, and I am not able to be openhearted in my relationship with you. I love you, but I feel angry, hurt, and misunderstood. For the sake of our relationship, I am going to press pause on our conversations for right now as they are doing more harm than good.” 

Physical self-protection means not seeing each other until the crisis has passed. Your message to your loved one might sound like this, “If you aren’t willing to protect yourself, then I will need to protect myself.” This is clearly more difficult if you are under the same roof.

The novel coronavirus has turned our worlds upside down so quickly, and members of the same family may have different ways of coping with the fear, sadness, and anger that the crisis can evoke in us. Staying on the same team will likely require both self-awareness and empathy—and perhaps some healthy boundaries. But it’s worth making the effort. When families are able to collaborate, relationships become a treasured source of solace and reprieve.