When three COVID-19 vaccines were granted Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA earlier this year, I never worried about whether my parents would get the vaccine, only how quickly they could get it. At the same time the vaccines became available, my parents called to tell me and my brother that my dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer, which made the situation even more urgent. I practically demanded they get vaccinated seconds after my dad shared his news, and I didn’t let up for months. In daily phone calls and texts, I nagged them about making appointments. At one point, I even swiped their insurance cards to make—and later cancel—appointments without their knowledge.
I thought my intentions were pure. I’d spent the past year worrying that my parents would be hospitalized due to COVID and now surgeons were about to remove a piece of my dad’s lung during a pandemic that was ruining people’s lungs beyond repair. By April 1, both my parents were vaccinated, but not because of my urging. They needed to make their decision without pressure from anyone.
I’m definitely not the only person insisting their parents get vaccinated and, for many, it’s still an uphill battle—a Pfizer-employed relative just told me her mom still won’t get her jab.
It’s not totally unreasonable to be worried about your older, unvaccinated parents and want to do whatever you can to change that. According to the CDC, the Delta variant is the predominant strain of the virus in the United States and two-times as contagious as previous variants, with people who are 65 and older or immunocompromised still at highest risk for serious infection. As of Monday, August 16, there was a daily average of 141,365 confirmed COVID cases in the U.S.—a 64 percent jump from two weeks ago—causing some states to re-institute masking guidelines and even consider vaccine mandates.
However, after speaking with Jennifer Taber, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University; Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and director of wellness engagement and outreach at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine; and Alison Buttenheim, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, I learned my never-ending relaying of facts and figures to my parents (and to you, in the above paragraphs) is not the approach they recommend when encouraging someone to get vaccinated against COVID.
So where do you, a person who is worried about their parents and wants them to do whatever they can to protect themselves against a deadly virus, go from here? Our three experts offered up a sort-of How To Talk to Your Parents About Vaccines flowchart that takes you through possible scenarios and approaches with the end goal of your parents making the choice to be vaccinated.
Refresh your memory on how a public health crisis turned political
Since the pandemic radically changed everyone’s lives 18 months ago, people have lost much of their personal agency and control. Choices like whether to work from home instead of the office, eat in a restaurant or cook those soon-to-expire groceries at home, and so many others were no longer ours to make.
In response, people controlled what they could, developing biases toward the virus and their information sources. The pandemic turned political instead of staying in the careful hands of public health experts.
Amid this divide, the vaccine was (and still is) one of the only personal choices someone could make when it comes to the pandemic. Taber, whose research focuses on how people think about their disease risk and its relation to health behavior, is working with a team of researchers to analyze unpublished data centered around vaccine incentives, like the million-dollar lottery in Ohio. Their early findings suggest that these incentives can make people want the vaccine even less because they feel like they’re being manipulated or controlled.
“If the stick feels like it's restricting one's choice or one's freedom, that's potentially going to make people even want to engage in the behavior even less,” Taber explained. Even though choosing to be vaccinated benefits not only the vaccinated person but their family, friends, and community, it is still an individual’s choice in the same way choosing a particular cancer treatment is a personal choice.
Stop, listen, and control your reaction
You might think you know better than your parents—and in some cases, that may be true. But you’re not going to get anywhere by kicking off the vaccine conversation by making them feel like an idiot who doesn’t know how to distinguish fact from fiction.
Buttenheim, who designs trials for innovative interventions in public health like vaccine acceptance, recommended triaging your approach to determine why your parent is not yet vaccinated. Is it a misunderstanding of efficacy data and breakthrough cases, or is it about a 5G microchip? Maybe it’s somewhere in between. “This is sort of health counseling 101, but really listening and acknowledging where people are coming from is a big help,” she told VICE. “It gets you in the door to have the conversation.”
Gold agreed that starting with open-ended questions is the only way the conversation won’t stop before it actually begins. Asking your parents how they came to their decision, or what it was that they read or watched that made them so worried is a good starting point because it gives you an opportunity to understand the emotion behind their actions. “[E]ven if what they’re saying is, ‘you’re getting chipped, they’re following you,’ there is a reason that appeals to them,” Gold said. “Most news, in general, or propaganda-type stuff can really affect people because they’re looking for information to support whatever they’re feeling.”
While you may want to roll your eyes every time you hear “5G” or see a video of someone, somehow, sticking a magnet to the spot on their shoulder where they injected the vaccine, Gold said it’s important to stop yourself from having a negative reaction to claims you believe to be false or simply don’t agree with. “I think people assume that if you have a different belief, you just can’t listen to them, because you’ve gotten to that place in life where there’s two sides and they have nothing they can agree on,” she said. Instead of focusing on facts—which will ensure you’re stuck going back and forth about whose information is better or whose argument is more valid—ground the conversation in emotion to start. Emotion tends to bind people and help them find common ground.
Use what you’ve learned to help you make your case
By hearing your parents out, you’re establishing an opportunity to meet them where they are. You’ll learn important information that’ll tell you where to go next. There are (at least) three directions to go from here: using the support from influential people they trust, offering a selection of balanced information, or making a personal appeal.
The power of politics and the media
Taber told VICE that people have very strong opinions about media and news sources. “The sources that the person talking to their parent might trust might be very different than the sources that someone who is hesitant to vaccinate will trust,” she said. If politics or anti-vax media are behind your parent’s opposition to the vaccine, ask yourself who they might trust as an authoritative source, or who they perceive as being similar to them and likely to make similar choices.
Fortunately, there are both conservative and liberal figures in politics and media who are encouraging their supporters to get vaccinated, and you can likely find back-up from sources who aren’t your go-to experts, but may have more influence over your parents. For example, earlier this month, Steve Doocy, an anchor on Fox & Friends, said on air, “A lot of people have been tuning into the show for 25 years to see what we think about different things. I think, if you have the opportunity, get the shot.” He’s right. There is an almost unbreakable bond between Fox News and its most loyal viewers. They do want to know what their trusted anchors think on topics as contentious as the COVID vaccine.
If you find yourself needing the clout of a politician who is an ardent supporter of former President Trump and believes in the efficacy of vaccines, I present to you Senator Lindsey Graham, who announced on August 2 that he tested positive for COVID-19. In a series of tweets, he wrote, “I am very glad I was vaccinated because without vaccination I am certain I would not feel as well as I do now. My symptoms would be far worse.” Three days later, Graham tweeted “President Trump has taken the vaccine. I’ve taken the vaccine. If you are unvaccinated, I would encourage you to take the vaccine as well.” His statement is an encouraging reminder that the vaccine isn’t meant to spare you from ever contracting COVID, but what it can do is spare you from hospitalization, life-long complications, or even premature death.
Doocy and Graham aren’t the only pro-vax Republicans. There are others, like Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri and Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders, publicizing their own vaccinations to encourage their communities to do the same.
Buttenheim encourages “gentle guidance” when trying to sway parents away from misinformation—advice a friend of mine from Wisconsin did not follow when interrogating her mom about her vax status. Just this week, she messaged me saying, “Just had to yell at my mom yesterday to get vaccinated. So so frustrating.”
Her frustration came from a loving place and also after several conversations with her mother about getting the vaccine. Their first was during the phased launch, which her mother qualified for both because she is a retail worker and has a pre-existing condition that puts her in the CDC’s high-risk categories. At that point, her mother was concerned about the long-term effects of a relatively new vaccine, so my friend decided to pause the conversation until more people were vaccinated and side effects were better understood. This time, her mom said it was her doctor who told her to wait because of her condition, which didn’t track because, as my friend quickly learned, reputable and non-partisan organizations like the American Diabetes Association encourage people with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes to be vaccinated. Frustrated, she essentially called her mom’s doctor a quack for their bad intel—which is when the conversation stopped being productive and my friend stopped to rethink her strategy.
If you find yourself in a similarly frustrating position, Buttenheim offered these alternatives to “What the fuck is that guy talking about?”:
- “You know, here's three things I want to show you about this website that might suggest it's not the most credible.”
- “Would you consider bookmarking other sites too so you're getting balanced information?”
Just like Gold, Taber, and Buttenheim predicted, persuading a parent to get vaccinated isn’t a casual or one time conversation, which is why my friend hasn’t given up—but is making her approach gentler, and enlisting the help of her already-vaxxed stepdad.
Make it personal
Taber and Gold both said anecdotes are a powerful tool to persuade someone, especially if they firmly believe the science or data is wrong. “The reason that politicians do this a lot is because people are much more likely to listen to an emotional plea or a plea from a place of truth and validity over something that they don’t 100 percent believe,” Gold said.
Every day, it seems, there’s a new cautionary tale making headlines, no shortage of stories about someone’s unvaccinated father, aunt, or child being hospitalized with COVID or, worse, dying. If another family’s tragedy is too far removed, bring the conversation back to your family—and the natural consequences that’ll follow if your parent remains unvaccinated.
People don’t often respond well to threats—similar to the opportunity to win a million dollars if you get vaccinated, threats remove personal agency. But there is a way to explain what it means for your family if your parents stay unvaccinated. If your extended family takes an annual trip, for example, Buttenheim suggested saying something like, “You're the center of the lake trip every year and I don't want to miss out on that. I don't want you to miss out on that. You know, this is coming from a place of love and concern.”
Set boundaries and protect yourself
Over the course of these discussions, you’ll likely start to get a sense of whether or not your parents even want to be persuaded; this could happen when each conversation turns into a screaming match where you go fact-for-fact, trying to prove each other wrong, or when they stop taking your calls or change the subject every time the virus comes up. None of the experts interviewed for this recommend making appointments without your parents’ knowledge like I did.
Instead, they suggest taking cues based on what you learn from these conversations. If your parents suggest they’re open to getting the vaccine or hearing more, this could be your moment to suggest looking for open appointments at vaccine sites in the area, or sharing news about a community vaccination event that may help them feel more comfortable.
But if it becomes clear your parents are committed to staying unvaccinated, you’ll need to evaluate how their choice affects your mental and emotional health. Gold’s script turns what feels like a threat into an emotional plea: “I don't think that I will be able to have you around and that would be really sad for me because I really want you to be in our life, and I really want my child to be around you in some capacity. It’s not something I want to be doing, and I don't want it to feel like I'm punishing you and saying it's the only way… but I feel really strongly about this.”
Or, you might decide to pause Operation Get Vaxxed entirely—which is totally reasonable considering how emotionally taxing these conversations can be—and set new boundaries within your comfort levels. That could mean only seeing each other outdoors, where everyone is masked, or swapping your annual lake trip to a virtual gathering with stovetop s’mores.. You may also consider what you can do to keep your parents safe; for example, maybe you offer to do their grocery shopping to keep them from crowded stores where masks aren’t mandatory. However, Gold emphasized that before you start making promises like this, you need to assess where you are mentally. Do you have the time and energy to do errands for them, or will it create resentment on your part? If you don’t go and they get ill, will you regret not doing this?
Conversations around getting vaccinated can and, perhaps, should lead to discussions of your parents’ healthcare wishes. If things are getting heated or you sense your parents are not in the right space to continue the discussion, bringing up end-of-life care is not the right move. But if it feels appropriate, or you feel sure you’re never going to change their mind about the vaccine, Gold suggested broaching the subject by saying something like this:
- “If you're not thinking that you want to get vaccinated, I’m really concerned that you could get really sick and end up in the hospital, and one of the things we haven't discussed is what that means to you and what you would want in those circumstances. We don't have to talk about it right this minute, but if you're really truly not going to get the vaccine and I could be put in a position to make decisions, I do think we need to talk about it.”
There is no easy answer to any of this, and how you decide to approach this might change your relationship with your parents temporarily or for the rest of the time you have together. Know that it’s OK to hit pause if the conversation stagnates or is suddenly filled with swearing and threats. If you’re feeling frustrated, remember that no matter how absurd your parents’ reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated may seem to you, there are valid feelings and rationale that brought your parents to that place. The best you can do is to try to figure out what those emotions and motivators are, and let that be the basis for a productive conversation between people who love each other.
Follow Suzanne Zuppello on Twitter.