Mind Matters with Kyle MacDonald: Don’t let Covid-19 anti-vaxxers divide your family


Q: Members of my family are adamant they’re not going to get a Covid-19 vaccine, why do people refuse to listen to common sense?

A: As an avowed vaccine enthusiast, I struggle with this too. The science of vaccines has saved more lives than arguably any other medical advancement in human history. There’s a reason these days most people have no idea what smallpox symptoms even are.

Having said that, I also completely support the clear stance our Government is taking that making health interventions compulsory, from a human rights perspective, is a really bad idea.

So, what to do with your vaccine-hesitant whānau?

Well, as tempting as it is to yell facts at them, or engage in arguments about the science, it’s unlikely to work. Almost no one responds well to being told they’re wrong and attacked. Defensiveness is the natural response – it’s the same for all of us. It’s also clear from the research about such things that arguing the facts tends to only make people more entrenched in their views, as they argue their point of view and strengthen their position.

The best response is somewhat counter-intuitive. At least at first, it’s best to ask questions, be interested, and listen.

When we genuinely try and understand, by hearing and validating people’s fears and concerns, they feel less defensive and can then be more open to hearing about why we also consider it important to make the choice we’re making.

Remember we don’t have to convince people all at once. But when we try to understand we can also provide answers to people’s very real concerns.

You only need to spend five seconds on Twitter to see there are already way too many embittered arguments between two camps of people on opposite sides of issues hurling insults at each other. No need to add to that divisiveness in your own family.

And at the very least it will make the next family gathering more pleasant.

Q: I’m feeling really guilty, my child does some things that really annoy me and I struggle to like them at times. Am I a bad person?

A: No, you’re a parent and the fact you’re noticing this, feeling bad about it and wanting to think and reflect on it also says you’re a good parent.

The thing about our kids is, they’re us and our partner reflected back to us. Early on, most of what they learn is from us, there are not many parents that haven’t talked about which of their children is more like them, or their partner.

It’s also true that our insight into ourselves is never complete or perfect. We all have habits or ways of being that we try to ignore because we don’t like them in ourselves. And when those habits or similarities show up in our children, we can react more strongly than we might like.

So reflecting honestly on our own behaviour – and what we’re reacting to – is the solution. Because when we embrace this process, our children provide deeper ways of understanding and accepting ourselves, so we can also more fully accept them.

Q: If I go to therapy, is it going to end up all being my mother’s fault?

A: Funnily enough, I’m aware of the stereotype, but it isn’t that simple. Blame is generally an unhelpful concept in therapy – it stops us thinking and can trick us into believing we’ve solved the problem.

What is true is that our earliest relationships are important for our whole lives – both our mother and our father impact on us, as do our siblings and other important adults.

So when therapists ask about your childhood relationships, and what your family was like growing up, it’s about understanding the patterns, what style of parenting you experienced and were there any disruptions that were beyond everyone’s control.

Of course, none of this excludes the possibility that parents can fail – and can be abusive. But thinking, reflecting and understanding the ways in which even the most loving parents shape our development isn’t about blaming mothers – or fathers – it’s understanding that families are complex, and never perfect.

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