Expert tips to minimise tension and stress at Chinese New Year family gatherings

Unrealistic expectations of a happy Chinese New Year reunion can be a cause for stress. — TODAY pic
Unrealistic expectations of a happy Chinese New Year reunion can be a cause for stress. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Jan 12 — The pretty and heartwarming picture of extended families laughing and bonding during the festive period may not be the full reality for many people.

Aside from meals to plan, people to visit and children to mind, there are also the prying questions from relatives to dodge as well as tensions with difficult family members, so a person’s mental or emotional well-being can take a hit.Just ask Patricia, 35, a sales coordinator.

The festive atmosphere in Chinatown, the smell of freshly laundered new bedsheets and dressing up in new clothes are all the things she loves about Chinese New Year.

Clinical psychologist Vyda S. Chai of Think Psychological Services said that the festive season is a time when extended families are expected to come together and enjoy the celebrations, but not everyone can live up to the ideals of family togetherness.

Unrealistic expectations of a happy Chinese New Year reunion can be a cause for stress.

Financial problems, the preparations, springcleaning and long queues at the banks and supermarkets can also add to the stress, Chai said.

Common stressors

Based on her experience counselling young Singaporean Chinese, Eleanor Ong, a psychotherapist at The Relational Counselling Studio, said that common stressors they face usually revolve around jobs and relationships.

“For example, if you’re not in a relationship, ‘why not?’. If you’re in a relationship, ‘when are you getting married?’. If you’re married, ‘when are you getting pregnant?’, and if you have a child, ‘when are you expecting your next child?’” she said.

When bombarded by questions that they find intrusive, people often feel overwhelmed yet find it challenging to assert themselves and set boundaries, Ong said.

The Chinese New Year festivities, or any holiday season, can also be especially hard on dysfunctional families dealing with estrangement issues, in part due to the stigma involved.

There is no formal data in Singapore on family estrangement as it is a relatively young field of research, Chai said. However, she believes that it is common based on the cases seen at Think.

Research from the West shows that family estrangement may be almost as common as divorce. A study by Stand Alone, a British charity that supports this group of people, suggests that at least one in five British families are affected, Chai said.

One of the most common reasons mentioned for worsening relations and estrangement between parents and children is emotional abuse, which can come in the form of persistent attempts to control through humiliation, criticism and other damaging behaviours,  Chai said.

Rather than the stereotypical dramatic quarrelling seen in soap dramas, Chai said that estrangement tends to start gradually, and it is often quiet and undramatic.

“People have often said that they themselves don’t quite know how it happened. Still, even if the triggers seem trivial, they typically reflect long-lived tension,” Chai said.

Ways to handle difficult interactions

Experts said that there are ways to deal with difficult family relations before they escalate to the point of no return. Setting boundaries is key, they said.

The lack of healthy boundaries is one of the reasons why you might feel overwhelmed and stressed when navigating difficult family relationships.

“Boundaries are not about other people, but really for ourselves. When set in place, healthy boundaries keep us safe and we don’t end up in situations we don’t want to be in,” Ong said.

“When we have healthy boundaries and communicate them effectively (to others), it allows us to stay true to ourselves. It also shows other people how to treat us.”

The following are some tips on how to navigate and survive difficult encounters.

1.   Plan the length of your visit

Although you can choose to skip the Chinese New Year gatherings, Chai said that it may worsen the situation and strain family ties further. Instead, decide in advance with whom you want to spend a longer or shorter time. Shorter visits are usually easier to manage, she said.

2.   Be aware of trouble spots before setting boundaries

Ask yourself, ahead of time, which toxic behaviours you would like to address and the ones you will let slide, Chai said.

For example, you may decide that you would like your relatives not to pressure you to get married.

Ong said: “When you are clear about the first point, it will be clearer and easier to say ‘no’ when someone crosses this boundary. For example, when a relative broaches the topic of marriage, you can tell yourself that ‘I will politely decline to answer without the need to explain myself’.”

Letting certain things slide does not mean you are condoning them. View it as choosing your battles to make family gatherings easier for yourself, Ms Chai added.

3.   Follow through with consequences

Ong said that boundaries should come with consequences, so that when people violate your boundaries after you have explicitly stated them, follow through with some form of consequence.

“For example, if your relative ignores your repeated requests to decline answering or engaging questions on marriage, you will leave the room,” she said.

Ong feels that it is okay to leave, politely but firmly, if you find the situation overwhelming. But while firm boundaries are important, she also emphasised the importance of staying flexible and being open to new solutions.

4.   Try to maintain emotional distance

Sometimes, even after boundaries are communicated, inquisitive relatives may continue asking difficult questions or refuse to consider your stance.

Chai said it is important to recognise that their behaviour is a reflection of themselves, not you. You may wish to share less with them, which limits the effects of their behaviour on you, she added.

5.   Use some peace-keeping tactics

Another way to defuse potentially explosive situations as they are unfolding is to deflect and change the subject.

Chai said: “For example, you could ask about what is going on with another relative or say something like ‘What was Chinese New Year like when you were growing up?’. Or, compliment the food you are eating.”

If a relative continues to try to bait you or another family member into yet another argument or create a scene, Ms Chai suggested cracking jokes or bringing up a list of tension-defusing subjects that you have planned beforehand. For instance, try you could divert the family member to another room or area of the house to sing karaoke, play card games or go to the kitchen to check on the food or offer help, she said.

Even if everyone knows you are obviously trying to defuse the tension or change the topic, Ms Chai said it is unlikely that they will call you out.

“This is because they know you are intervening in the interest of the event. It also signals to the person who started the conversation that the topic is unwelcomed and should remain undiscussed,” she added.

6.   Manage your expectations, keep them realistic

If you know that a family member has always behaved in a certain manner their entire life, and possesses an unchanging set of beliefs, Ms Chai pointed out that it would be unrealistic to go to a yearly reunion dinner expecting them to be a different person.

“People often have high expectations that things would be different this year but this is often not the case. Accept that people will behave as they always do and keep your own expectations in check,” she said.

Forgiveness, which you can get by letting go of the expectations that things would be different, can be liberating.

“You will not be able to control the past but you can control how much it impacts your future. Forgiveness doesn’t mean accepting the behaviour. It means that you are not going to be controlled by it anymore,” Ms Chai said.

Having said that, forgiving does not mean forgetting the experiences and lessons learnt. “Use that to help yourself live with clarity and resolve,” she said.

The thing that she dreads the most? Being interrogated by nosy relatives who “appear only once a year” to ask intrusive questions about her personal life or to compare children’s achievements.

Patricia, who is married, did not want to give her full name out of respect for her parents. She accepts that the yearly interrogations are the norm and that “family drama” is unavoidable, but the insensitive remarks and questions still do not sit well with her.

“Over the years, comments have ranged from ‘You can do better’, to ‘Why did you choose to go to a polytechnic instead of a junior college’ to ‘Why you don’t have boyfriend at 30?’ Suddenly, I’m supposed to do this or have that, and yet, they have made zero contribution (to my life). That grates me the most,” she said.

“And when you finally have a family of your own, you get to break away from your relatives and face other challenges — from the other (in-laws) side.”

Whether you are single, in relationship, married with or without children, family gatherings during the Chinese New Year can be stressful and bring on negative feelings, especially when elders are not always brimming with wisdom and understanding. — TODAY

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