The past two years have seen thousands of families in Hong Kong forced to undergo emotional trials. With work-from-home arrangements and school suspensions, parents and children have spent more time in shoebox-like apartments often overcrowded with all kinds of stuff. For a few families, being confined in a small space under the same roof might yield happy memories that everyone cherishes when the pandemic is over. However, such blessings are rare in a society that is filled with social tension and economic recession. The pandemic has put family relations through an agonizing trial — and it is a brewing pot for arguments and conflict.
Among the myriad challenges that parents and their children are struggling with, the clash of values is the most common as the generation gap is present in just about every family. It creates barriers, sometimes seemingly unsurmountable, to bridge the minds of those of different ages. This is compounded by the “claustrophobic effects” of living in Hong Kong, which refers to the emotional distress caused by tiny living spaces in a city with the most unaffordable property in the world.
For a few families, being confined in a small space under the same roof might yield happy memories that everyone cherishes when the pandemic is over. However, such blessings are rare in a society that is filled with social tension and economic recession
Data from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Open Up, an anonymous 24/7 online emotional support platform serving youths, shows that “family” is the second-highest-mentioned stressor/topic among users since June 2019. The ratio of family-related cases has risen from 55 percent in the second half of 2019 before COVID-19 to 59 percent in the entire 2020 — with family-related murder-suicides and domestic violence among the issues. Family conflict has become a pressing social issue that demands an immediate solution, or initiatives to find solutions at the very least.
Though a full solution is yet to be found, narrative therapy workshops have offered a good start to support troubled families. Some institutions have designed workshops to resolve conflict between the generations. For instance, the one offered by HKJC Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention is centered on the theme of “Connecting over a Meal”, with counselors providing advice on how to reconcile differences over the dinner table.
Conflict is very difficult to avoid in many human relationships. When a family falls into heated debate, members can ease the tension simply by stepping back and reminding themselves how much they love each other. Avoiding the impulse to blurt out hurtful words is a way to calm down agitated minds, which allows people to recognize the value of letting go of grudges. If, for example, a son forgets to do his chores, instead of blaming him for his carelessness, his parents are trained in workshops to gently remind him of his obligations. Parents’ supportiveness nurtures a sense of forgiveness while children, by acknowledging their parents’ forgiveness, will have a greater chance of becoming open-minded citizens. Anger and frustration often lead to finger pointing among family members. Whenever this happens, spotting other family members’ hidden “gems”, or good qualities and strengths, will be more beneficial than blaming each other. Instead of criticizing flaws, praising others will navigate a family in turmoil toward hope and prosperity. Focusing on the present and cherishing life allows people to be positive in coping with complicated family issues. Parenthood will be easier by encouraging kids, as well as parents, to make improvements.
The first few workshops focused on parents, helping them to avoid venting frustrations at their children, such as not completing homework, having poor time management or leaving the house in a mess. Some parents, after the workshop, said they were able to reestablish communication with their children. The workshops got off to a good start in the long journey to family harmony in Hong Kong.
The pandemic, while showing signs of abating in some parts of the world, is yet to be fully contained. The public health challenge and economic recession affect every family. It is time for those in Hong Kong, and further afield, to grasp the opportunity to resolve family tensions and defuse domestic conflict. If there is one lesson humans can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, it should be maintaining positive interaction among family members.
Paul Yip is the director, Christy Tsang project officer and Florence Cheung counselor at the HKJC Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, the University of Hong Kong.
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