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The Great American Guilt Trip

It feels like every family in the country is having the same fight: Who will risk spreading COVID-19 to eat turkey on Thursday?

A little over a week ago, Patrick sat on the phone with his mom as she held back tears. The 33-year-old from suburban Philadelphia had just broken the responsible yet seemingly tragic news that he wouldn’t be joining her, his dad or his elderly grandmother — who his parents care for — for Thanksgiving this year. 

Patrick lives a mere 20-minute drive from his parents and had been visiting them regularly until recently. Furloughed from his technician job, he’d had ample time to quarantine, test and make himself useful by helping his parents with home improvement projects. But after starting a new gig that exposes him to numerous people on a daily basis — “You can’t use a wrench on Zoom,” he jokes — he’s staying away until the number of cases goes down and he has a better handle on how risky his work environment is. 

“The initial response was, ‘That makes me very sad to hear’ in that ‘I’m trying to tug every heartstring I can’ voice that only mothers have,” Patrick tells me. They’ve talked a few more times on the phone since, but the more steadfast he remains, the more his mom doubles-down on the guilt trips. And when that doesn’t work, she tries to bargain. “She started proposing that we could just keep apart inside,” he says. “I could wear a mask, and they could open windows. She even offered to eat outside in the middle of winter in Philly.”

Psychotherapist Nicki Nance warns that empty-nester parents and grandparents are the most prone to using guilt to get what they want, mostly because it works so well. “What we call guilting is actually a combination of complaining, blaming and manipulating,” Nance explains. “Guilt is owned by those who feel guilty. The remedy for guilt is action; so if someone teases guilt out of you, you will feel pressure to do something.”

Karen C.L. Anderson, a life coach and author of Difficult Mothers, Adult Daughters: A Guide for Separation, says Boomer parents are feeling the same pandemic-inspired isolation, loneliness and uncertainty their adult children are, they just have fewer tools to cope and are acting out as a result. “The reason older parents guilt-trip their adult children is generally because they don’t know any other way to get their needs met and they learned that shaming, should-ing and guilting works,” she says. 

At the core of all of this is a shared fear of our parents and grandparents dying. Millennials and Gen Xers cope with these anxieties by focusing on what they can control by not taking unnecessary risks, which include group celebrations that can easily be moved to Zoom. Boomers’ way of dealing with it, on the other hand, is dramatically different — they rebel. 

Although Patrick feels fortunate that his parents aren’t outright virus-deniers, he’s seen them make exceptions that frequently concern him as they regularly attend church and go out to dinner with friends. “They get that the virus is real and try to take precautions like masks and social distancing,” he says. “But they’ve also got that ‘it can’t happen to me and we can’t live in fear forever’ kind of mindset that drives me crazy.”

He still, however, manages to remain compassionate. “Part of it is that they’re afraid of change that’s forced on them, or that they don’t have time to ease into it,” Patrick believes.They want to avoid making big changes because it’s scary, so they make a bunch of little changes and hope it adds up to a big change.”

Such compassion is by far the best way to handle parental guilt trips — as well as sharing your own struggles with loneliness and uncertainty, therapist Candida Wiltshire recommends. “It can be a validating experience to just hear someone say, ‘I understand that you may be missing us more this year. We miss you too very much.’ This helps the person feel heard, understood and more open to engaging in discussion about other options,” she says, freeing manipulative parents to at least entertain the notion of meeting on Zoom, FaceTime or Skype, as opposed to circling back on another, likely more dramatic guilt trip. 

“Focus on brainstorming new ways to celebrate and connect during the holidays,” Wiltshire continues. “This is best framed as creating a new family tradition and something that can be passed down with memories from each year, including the initial year of 2020.”

If that doesn’t work, Anderson suggests accepting the guilt, which won’t feel great, but will be much better than the worst-case scenario. “They might think you’re being selfish, and you may experience guilt,” she says. “But guilt won’t kill you. COVID might.”

To that end, it’s crucial for adult children to set boundaries with their parents and not be pushed into doing something unsafe. “If you play out going to the event under the duress of guilt, you will make the trip with high anxiety and unspent anger,” Nance warns. 

Hannah, a 25-year-old professor in Salt Lake City, is so paralyzed by the guilt she anticipates her mother will give her for abstaining from Thanksgiving this year, she hasn’t told her yet. “I’m waiting for next Tuesday, so there’s less time for her to try and guilt-trip me,” Hannah, who lives a two-hour drive from her parents, says. “I can only handle 48 hours of that.”

Patrick, meanwhile, could have spared himself a few days of guilt by waiting to tell his mother about Thanksgiving, but he’s confident that he can handle having his heartstrings yanked on for a few more days. He also recognizes that like every other holiday season, he’s just warming up for Christmas. “Thanksgiving will probably be easy,” he laughs. “Christmas will be the big fight.”