What to Do When You and Your Family Fight About COVID-19 Vaccines
America is full of families driven apart by conflicting views on COVID-19 vaccines. Here’s some expert advice about how to handle difficult conversations — and maybe even change someone’s mind.
What if you got a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you possibly could, but your husband — or daughter, sister, grandfather, or cousin — refuses? Or maybe they keep putting it off, for myriad reasons: They don’t see the need, are worried about vaccine safety and side effects, suspect those in power of ulterior motives, don’t like being told what to do, or still want to wait and see.
There is yelling at the dinner table. You plead, bargain, lay on the guilt, rage, maybe even cry. To no avail. And resentment grows on both sides.
Disagreements about COVID-19 vaccination are splintering American families in ways that are both heartbreaking and infuriating.
These arguments sometimes make headlines. Consider a report from Vero Beach, Florida, about identical twin brothers in their late 50s with opposing views on COVID-19 vaccines. As described in the local Treasure Coast newspaper and shared by USA Today, both men contracted COVID-19 in summer 2021. The vaccinated twin got better; the unvaccinated twin, who was at a higher risk of COVID-19 complications because of diabetes, ended up on a respirator and died.
Even without tragic outcomes like this, disagreements about COVID-19 vaccines are straining family relationships, leading to rifts between siblings, parents and children, husbands and wives.
“It’s easier for me to help families who have differing views on politics and religion,” says Karen Gail Lewis, EdD, a marriage and family therapist in Silver Spring, Maryland. “Unlike those topics, you can’t simply agree to not talk about it. If you’re going to be in each other’s presence and someone isn’t vaccinated and won’t wear a mask, it’s a matter of your health.”
Though COVID-19 vaccines are widely available — and free — in this country, 1 in 3 adults was not fully vaccinated as of September 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among them is the 21-year-old son of a woman named Christine, age 50. (Christine, like the other people interviewed for this story, asked to remain incognito.) “I’m a receptionist in a doctor’s office, which means I have a high risk of exposure to COVID-19, so I was first in line for the vaccine,” says the Connecticut resident. “My husband and daughter are also vaccinated, but my son, who lives with us, doesn’t want to have anything to do with it.”
Not that Christine hasn’t attempted to talk him about it. She’s presented him with research, tried cajoling and, yes, arguing, in person and over text. “I’ve also encouraged him to do his own research, but he continues to believe that the fears about COVID are overblown and flat-out refuses to get the vaccine,” she says.
This, despite the fact that her son’s girlfriend is immunocompromised, that his grandmother often comes to visit, and that Christine herself is overweight, which puts her at an increased risk of complications should she become infected.
“I will always love my child, but right now I don’t like or support his choices,” she says. “It’s perplexing to me, because he has always been a kind and compassionate person, but nothing I do or say can get him to change his mind. I just can’t understand it.”
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A Ripple Effect of Resentment
Tension over COVID-19 vaccines also tends to have a ripple effect on extended family, as social gatherings are disrupted or canceled — and mistrust brews.
Randal, a retired engineer in New York City, recalls when his 37-year-old nephew showed up unannounced at a Fourth of July get-together. At first, everyone was all smiles. “We hugged and kissed, shared meals, went boating together,” says Randal, age 66. “We all felt safe because we’d decided ahead of time that all the adults had to be vaccinated to be there. We wanted to be especially cautious, because one of our siblings is immunocompromised.”
Later that day, it came out that the nephew was unvaccinated. “We were all shocked and distraught,” Randal says. “When his dad tried to speak with him about our concerns, my nephew exploded in anger and threatened to leave.”
Randal texted his nephew an article the next day that explained how unvaccinated people could spread COVID-19. “I suggested that he was putting his niece and nephew at risk, who are still too young to be vaccinated. He was furious with me,” Randal says.
Similarly, family members’ decisions not to get vaccinated are causing tension between Lori, a 59-year-old hair stylist in Connecticut, and her husband — despite the fact that both she and her husband are immunized.
“He wants to babysit for his granddaughter, even though his daughter — the child’s mother — isn’t vaccinated,” she recounts. “I have asthma, and after talking with my doctor, I don’t feel comfortable with him doing that, especially because he won’t wear a mask. Now my husband feels stuck in the middle, and we’ve had so many disagreements about it,” she says.
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Empathy Can Make a Difference
As intransigent as these intrafamily divisions may seem, there are ways to talk about vaccines calmly, without burning bridges. “It’s even possible to change someone’s mind, as long as you take an empathetic approach,” says Rupali J. Limaye, PhD, director of behavioral and implementation science at the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
Limaye has spoken to more than 3,000 vaccine-hesitant people. “What I know first and foremost is that it never helps to say, ‘You’re wrong.’ You have to start from a point of empathy — maybe opening the conversation with something like, ‘I’m so sorry you have this concern.’”
Another way to build trust is to share how you’ve made your own vaccine decision, describing any struggles or worries you’ve had along the way. “I work in public health, but I have two kids under the age of 12, and I have lots of questions about getting them vaccinated,” says Limaye. “I share that, then I talk about what I’ve read, who I’ve spoken with, and how I go about making these decisions.”
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Vaccine Disagreements May Reflect Bigger Emotional Issues
It’s also important to keep in mind that some family fights about vaccines may have deeper roots. “I’ve seen in my practice that the son or daughter who won’t get vaccinated may have always felt discounted in the family,” says Lewis. “As a therapist, I’ll help the family deal with these larger issues; the vaccine disagreement is just part of it.”
Outside of therapy, she says, there are approaches that, while they may not change someone’s mind, can at least keep family bonds from fraying irreparably.
“Instead of saying, ‘Just get the damn vaccine or wear the damn mask,’ you can try a more open-ended approach,” says Lewis. She suggests framing the issue as a series of questions: “We have different opinions, but how do we make sure this doesn’t become a lasting issue?” Or, “Do you have any thoughts or ideas on how we can work our way around this so we don’t break up the family?”
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Is It Possible to Change a Person’s Mind About COVID-19 Vaccines?
Whatever approach you take, you won’t always be able to change someone’s mind, the experts say.
“Some people are immovable,” says Limaye. “Sometimes, the only thing that changes a person’s mind is if someone they know or love gets COVID, or if they themselves do.”
That doesn’t mean giving up. “You have to keep trying, just like pediatricians do with parents who are reluctant to get their kids vaccinated,” says Limaye. “We bring up the subject at every child wellness visit. If you don’t get anywhere at first, you have to keep talking.”
If that feels overwhelming (not to mention unpleasant), Limaye suggests these tips for keeping the conversation — and the relationship — going:
- Start from a point of empathy, not antipathy. It never hurts to preface comments with something along the lines of “I love you and don’t want to lose you.”
- Listen, don’t lecture. You want to find out what’s really holding them back, Limaye says. “Does it have to do with politics? With the fear that the vaccine is unsafe? Being willing to listen to someone’s concerns is the only way to build trust.”
- Share your own issues and anxieties. If we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that the science of vaccines is complicated. “It’s important to acknowledge that all of us have felt uncertain about what to do at times — all of us have had difficult decisions to make.”
- Redirect the conversation. “If someone is spouting misinformation, instead of correcting them, I’ll pivot by saying, ‘I’m not so sure, but here’s what I’ve learned,’” says Limaye.
- Come up with examples that are relevant to the reluctant person’s life. “If you have an older relative, you could say, ‘Think about grandma — if she got COVID, she could die,’” says Limaye. “Making the issue about someone they care about, instead of making it about them, sometimes helps change minds.”
- Keep your cool. “The worst thing you can do is to get emotional,” says Limaye.
- If all else fails, impose sanctions. “It’s perfectly reasonable to prohibit the vaccine-reluctant individual from family visits that include a person who may be vulnerable to the virus, like an elderly relative,” Limaye advises.
Christine, for one, makes sure to let others know that her son isn’t vaccinated when he is invited to a social event along with the rest of the family. “Sometimes people say they don’t want him coming, and my son is fine with that,” she says.
“But I’m feeling a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, a lot of worry — all the things that, as a parent, I don’t want to be feeling.”