My husband’s family is very close knit and we’ve been sheltering together in place since COVID-19 began. It’s been like a big party. Now that things are opening up, however, my brother-in-law has become a bit lax in taking protective measures. For instance, he will not bathe as soon as he comes home, but touch surfaces and want to hug people in greeting. The issue is not just us, my kids are younger than 10 and very fond of their uncle; my husband’s parents are over 60. We’ve tried to hint at the inappropriateness of this behavior, but it’s not working and once the in-laws got upset about it too. ‘Stop treating him like he’s got the plague,’ they said. While my husband was supportive of me, I caught him rolling his eyes a bit – how can I tackle the situation without causing rifts in the family?
Reader wishes to be anonymous
Answered by Sneha John, Counselling Psychologist, LifeWorks Holistic Counselling Centre, Dubai
I would like to appreciate you for ensuring your family’s health and safety during these times. Thank you being transparent by sharing the way you feel when some family members are not taking preventive measures seriously. It is positive that you would like resolve this situation tactfully without causing rifts in the family. Here are a few tips that could help:
A daily emotional-check
Even as we deal with family members, it is important for us to keep track of our emotions. Take the time to acknowledge how you feel when you are faced with the behaviour of this family member. For example, before you speak to him/her, pause and take a step back from the situation. Spend some time by yourself and engage in a quick breathing exercise where you release the anxiety and stress. As you do the exercise, notice your breath, whether it feels shallow or is coming back to normal. Then proceed with this step. Ask yourself, ‘How do I feel about this? What is my mind telling me right now?’
Often our minds have a tendency to assume the worst-case scenario, which causes a downward spiral of unhelpful thoughts and increases our anxiety. For example, ‘I do not want my children to get COVID-19, who will look after them if they are quarantined?’ Acknowledge your fear by telling yourself, ‘I am scared thinking about this possibility. However, this is a hypothetical worry where my mind may be blowing things out of proportion. I will do continue doing things that are within my control at this present moment. They will stay healthy.’
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By doing this we slowly train our minds to be attentive for unhelpful anxiety-provoking thoughts and replace them with balanced, helpful thoughts whenever they arise.
Share your concerns with loved ones briefly
Being honest and sharing your concerns can be a helpful tool in getting your point across. Explain to your loved one the anxiety you are feeling about them, or others, getting ill. Focus on communicating your feelings and beliefs, rather than on the other person’s experiences. “The ‘I’ language versus the ‘you’ language decreases defensiveness.” For example, instead of saying, “You’re putting the whole family in danger’, try saying “I get worried when you come back from outside and do not take a bath.”
Try it a different way
A brief family discussion will help establish some basic ground rules on that everyone could follow upon reaching home. You may keep these brief and also offer to help family members in case they have trouble following them. Avoid getting into back-and-forth conversations on the reasons for these ground rules. Family members may have questions and may not be willing to comply initially. You may gently respond by saying, ‘We are doing some basic things to be wise and keep safe during this time.’ Also show them that you care for them and the family, and not that you are out to prove who is right and wrong. Take time to hear their side of the story, too. Have them share what they are feeling and reach a middle-ground.
Offer to help set up the routine
After you and your family have established the basic ground rules, give them a few days to try this out for themselves. In the meantime, you can convey to them that you are here to help them, be it getting things ready for a shower, offering to put their clothes to wash, etc. Try to make it simple. Remember, the reason they may not be following is not necessarily because they don’t want to. The hesitation may be due to the effort involved to make this small change. Appreciate the little efforts they take which would lead to big ones as the weeks progress.
Recognise when you need to move on
Even with all of these approaches, you may not be able to convince someone to practice physical distancing. If that’s the case, it’s okay to move on. If you're finding yourself angry or frustrated while talking to your loved one, take a step back. It may be best to continue all that you are doing with the protective measures while giving them the space to respond.
If you have questions that you would like answered by a mental health professional in the UAE, please write in to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, please let us know if you'd rather stay anonymous.
Disclaimer: This blog is a conversation and is not an alternative for treatment. The recommendations and suggestions offered by our panel of doctors are their own and Gulf News will not take any responsibility for the advice they provide.