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How to keep the peace at home with young and old during the Covid-19 pandemic

SINGAPORE — Property agent Celine Ng, 40, lives in an executive government-built flat with her husband, four children aged two to 15, her parents and a domestic worker.

Mrs Celine Ng (fifth from right) with her family in a photo taken in a studio.

Mrs Celine Ng (fifth from right) with her family in a photo taken in a studio.

  • Fewer multigenerational families in Singapore are living under one roof
  • Average household sizes may have shrunk due to space constraints in flats and generational differences
  • Experts gave tips on how young and old may overcome differences and tensions while living together
  • A family of nine gave a glimpse into how they maintain harmony at home during the pandemic

 

SINGAPORE — Property agent Celine Ng, 40, lives in an executive government-built flat with her husband, four children aged two to 15, her parents and a domestic worker. 

With nine people – and a pet cat – riding out the Covid-19 pandemic together in the past year, the Ng family has had its share of tensions and squabbles at home, especially during the semi-lockdown last year in April and May.

It is undeniable that stress from the public health crisis has pushed relationships among couples and families over the edge. What the Ng family did was to learn to work around the challenges and the family members have emerged stronger and closer.

With her family’s support and 11-year-old daughter Reeyern’s social media know-how, Mrs Ng even started a small but thriving baking business from home.

She said: “I feel that the pandemic is a wake-up call. It made us realise the importance of spending time together as a family.”

Before Covid-19, she said that she and her husband were “all just busy earning money, thinking that it is all for the kids”.

“We were working for things that we could have in the future. The pandemic made us realise that the present is so important. Instead of worrying about the future only, we should not forget to treasure what we have now.”

What started out as a fun mother-daughter home baking project for Mrs Celine Ng (left) turned into a home-baking business called Reeandmummy. Photo: Celine Ng

Mrs Ng and her family are among the dwindling number of families here who live together in multigenerational homes. In Singapore, the number of people living in each household has shrunk even though the number of households has grown in the past decade.

The latest census released on June 18 showed that the average household size had fallen to 3.2 persons in 2020, down from 3.5 in 2010.

WHY FEWER LARGE FAMILIES ARE LIVING TOGETHER

Experts approached by TODAY said that space constraints in public housing and securing a home as an investment option could be some of the reasons why household sizes have become smaller and fewer family members are living together.

There is also the challenge of adapting to generational differences.

Clinical psychologist Vyda S Chai who is in private practice pointed out that while more flats built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) are made available to Singaporeans, the average size of newly built flats has shrunk.

“The space constraints to house multi-generational households may be one of the reasons why newer families from this generation find it challenging to house older or extended family members,” Ms Chai from Think Psychological Services and Think Kids said.

Sociology professor Paulin Straughan from the Singapore Management University said that young married couples generally prefer to live on their own as they value privacy and most prefer to be able to start their new life together as a couple in their own homes.

They also marry later, so they have more financial resources to facilitate this option, she added.

“Many see securing their own home as a sound investment option, so they are keen to get their HDB Built-To-Order flats as soon as possible,” Prof Straughan said.

“I don’t think we need to see this in a negative light as Singapore is a very small island and most live within a reasonable distant from their extended families.”

Prof Straughan is a council member on the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s Families For Life Council, which champions and promotes resilient families.

Practical reasons aside, sharing a living space with extended family has its own challenges even in the best of circumstances.

For some people, it can be trying to adapt to each family member’s preference and way of thinking.

While it can feel a bit “cramped” even in their flat that has four bedrooms, Mrs Ng said that living together and sharing spaces encourage everyone at home to communicate more.

The children learn to take turns and have mutual respect for one another.

The family members each have their own personal habits. For example, Mrs Ng said that her husband tends to be a bit more particular about cleanliness and his food. Her children also each have their own food preferences, which their grandmother tries to accommodate.

DIFFERENCES IN THINKING

Prof Straughan said that generational differences can sometimes be a “thorny” issue and may result in one party feeling uncomfortable and restrained when they are with each other.

“Most common issues surface when it comes to childrearing norms. Young parents may embrace ‘modern’ childrearing practices while grandparents may rely on tested traditional methods,” she said.

And when a pandemic forces everyone to spend long hours together at home, differences in views and ways of doing things may be heightened.

The lack of privacy and space in a household can lead to high levels of tension, annoyance and resentment among family members, Ms Chai said.

It is important for each family member to set aside space and time to be by themselves. Photo: Teona Swift/Pezels

Prof Straughan said: “Those living in smaller spaces would certainly feel the stress of having to find quiet corners for home-based learning and working from home.

“Not being able to retreat to the office or school and to go out for outdoor leisure activities would surely cause some to feel entrapped in a small space. But the good news is, older adults in these families will not suffer social isolation during lockdown periods.”

THE SECRET TO A HAPPY HOME

So how can large households thrive and live harmoniously, particularly in these unpredictable times? 

Over an interview with TODAY, Mrs Ng and her 69-year-old mother, Madam Grace Ho, said that a combination of mutual respect, being forgiving and their love for one another has helped them thrive as a multigenerational household for more than a decade.

Mrs Ng, who is a volunteer with Families for Life Council, said that it also helps that her parents are “chin chye” (a Hokkien term used to describe a person who is easy-going).

Speaking in Mandarin, Mdm Ho, a homemaker, said that while she occasionally disciplines and scolds her grandchildren when they squabble, she holds her tongue when there are conflicts between the adults.

“I learnt from YouTube videos that as elders, we should not interfere when couples are working out their differences,” Mdm Ho said.

“So far, there have been no major conflicts and everything is good — otherwise, how do you think we can live together for so long?”

Besides looking after the grandchildren, Mdm Ho also takes charge of buying food from the market for family meals.

MANAGING CONFLICTS

If a family spat seems to be spiralling out of hand, the experts suggested taking time out.

“It is important not to escalate tension by forcing other family members to take sides. Always remember we are one family and these moments of frustrations will pass,” Prof Straughan said.

Managing one’s own emotions can help prevent conflicts from worsening.

Ms Chai advised people to “pick your battles” and accept that there will be different opinions, views and expectations — even when it comes to Covid-19 safety rules.

“Stick with the facts and measures stipulated by the national guidelines. It is okay for family members to have their own opinions as long as it is within safety limits,” Ms Chai said.

“Try not to emotionally charge at one another. There is no need to add fuel to fire. Sometimes, excusing yourself allows time for all to recalibrate and not to be caught up or react emotionally,” she added.

While fretting over work uncertainties during the lockdown period, Mrs Ng and her husband, who is also a property agent, have had to step in to handle conflicts among their children.

“With the older children being around the same age, there were some fights, quarrels and arguments. While mediating their conflicts, we also had to be in the right mindset and handle our own emotions,” she said.

For example, when the children fight over the television in the living room, Mrs Ng tries to turn it into a teaching moment on how to take turns instead of getting upset with them.

“I try to remind myself not to get too uptight about things even though it can be challenging to handle my own emotions on top of theirs,” she said.

Fighting over who gets to watch what programme and when is a common scenario at home that can start fights. Photo: Andres Rodríguez/Pixabay

Mrs Ng said that she used to be a bit more short-tempered but has learnt to deal with conflicts more graciously.

“Last time when there was a conflict, we’d each go to our rooms and not talk to each other. Now, I will go to my mum and say, ‘Sorry, why let this argument continue?’

“It’s a bit difficult to voice this out but it always works.”

Mrs Ng said young couples often assume that living in an extended family household with elders is stressful and end up overlooking the advantages.

“To me, my parents are a treasure. They have been a great help with the children and with them around, it allows my husband and I to still enjoy couple time without worrying.”

Prof Straughan also said that it is a blessing to experience the love of doting grandparents. When her own children were younger, her mother would stay over on weekdays to look after them. Grandpa would also drop by regularly.

“My sons are very close to their grandparents and they are much richer because of the unconditional love from their grandparents,” she said.

“As a result, they grew up with deep respect for older adults, and I now note that when they speak to their 88-year-old ‘Mema’ now, they use a softer tone of voice and are ever so gentle.”

There are benefits to having grandparents around at home, even if some young couples think that the elders may stifle their parenting styles. Photo: Jovie Pujadas Ladura/Pexels

Even when there are differences in childrearing practices, for example, Prof Straughan said that family members ought to remember that they are all on the same side — both parties have the interest of the child in mind.

 “As far as possible, exercise flexibility. I always remind myself that it is such a privilege for children to enjoy the unconditional love of grandparents, so I am happy for my parents to indulge in my sons.”

CARVE OUT ME-TIME

The experts advised every household member to make time for themselves.

“It is important to remember that we all need moments of quiet time to reflect and just be with our own thoughts. For those living in large families, it is important to respect these moments,” Prof Straughan said.

For couples, it may be a good idea to plan short getaways to spend quality couple time. Adult children as well as older parents need to do the same for themselves, Prof Straughan said.

“Being apart occasionally will give each (couple or family member) that breather they may need, and family members will also not resent the loss of privacy and can instead focus on the joys on intergenerational living.”

Ms Chai encouraged parents to let children learn to spend time alone each day.

“Spending time alone is an underrated contributor to a child’s resilience and mental health. It allows them to tap into their own emotional resources to learn how to relax, reflect and draw on their own emotional strength,” Ms Chai said.

As for Mdm Ho, she “de-compresses” from her babysitting and household duties by going out once a week for social activities, whenever the Covid-19 situation permits.

“My ‘days off’ are on Saturdays,” she said with a laugh. “I will meet up with my friends for a game of mahjong or cards.”

Ms Chai advised members of a multigeneration household to hold conversations about “shared spaces” and “private spaces” to foster healthy boundaries.

Other issues to address include each person’s habits and routines.

“Some family members need to get up earlier in the mornings while others work through the night. It’s best to set a structured rule and expectations on things like chores, meals and responsibilities to avoid conflicts and resentment,” she said.

It is also advisable to “lay the cards out” and discuss added monthly costs associated with working or schooling from home as well as care needs, Ms Chai added.

While there are benefits to having loved ones under one roof, Prof Straughan said that those who do not should not let physical and geographical living arrangements affect social relations with the extended family.

“As long as the young or not-so-young couple continue to visit their parents, celebrate family rituals and festivities, strong bonds will continue to flourish,” she said.

More tips on strengthening family bonds are available on Families for Life website.

Related topics

family conflict Covid-19 multi-generation stress relationship

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