[OPINION] Filipino family dynamics in times of crisis

Nephtaly Joel B. Botor
[OPINION] Filipino family dynamics in times of crisis
'Filipinos consider the family as a primary social support system in times of adversity. Conversely, the family may also be a source of anxiety.'

Weeks have passed since the enhanced community quarantine began in response to COVID-19. Situations unfolded rapidly, as the number of people directly affected by the virus escalated. While COVID-19 is primarily a health crisis, we have witnessed how it also is a psychosocial crisis, characterized by an experience of great fear – both real and imagined – and uncertainty; a sudden change in routine, challenged social functioning, and reduced sense of normalcy; and a feeling of powerlessness due to constrained movement and diminished access to resources that are otherwise available if not due to the quarantine (i.e., livelihood, income). 

As a psychosocial crisis, the pandemic and the consequent quarantine have triggered complex emotional responses which may be new or familiar. Some emotions arise due to COVID-19 but others originate from pre-existing issues, which are only unearthed due to current stressors.  The interaction of COVID-19-related and pre-existing concerns takes its toll on our well-being at a deep individual and personal level. (READ: Keep calm and cope: How to stay mentally healthy during coronavirus crisis)

However, at the backdrop of our individual struggles is the family. Filipinos, being greatly influenced by the family in various spheres of life, also consider the family as a primary social support system in times of adversity. Although the family has many faces and it has varying meanings to people, it remains to be a source of people’s strength and resources (both material and non-material). Conversely, the family, as a valuable institution, may also be a source of anxiety. Faced with an enemy which we have limited information about, some worry about being unable to protect and ensure the well-being of their loved ones, as they, themselves, adjust to a frighteningly strange circumstance. For families with members who are frontliners or who are at-risk to COVID-19 and for those whose socio-economic capacities are jeopardized, the anxiety may even be greater.

Family dynamics in times of crisis

As we traverse the COVID-19 timeline, it is essential to recognize that the family is alive – thriving through the individual resources of its members and through its integrity-sustaining processes as a system. It is alive and it is also changing day by day as we, individually and collectively, adjust and adapt to new circumstances. 

Before the COVID-19 crisis, many would have spent more time outside the home and less with the family. We were mostly preoccupied with work, studies, and other affairs of our public and productive lives. However, at the onset of the ECQ, where physical distancing is required, we are suddenly compelled to be with the family, look at each other face to face, and stay together for a prolonged period. For some families, the early stage of the ECQ may have been opportunities to catch up and check how everyone is doing. For others, it may have been a chance to make up for lost time to do things together (i.e., just plain chatting with one another, playing with the kids, doing home improvement projects). All these occur as families worry about how to sustain their needs in a time when livelihood opportunities are limited or cut-off. (READ: Modern Filipino families: How does the state protect them?)

If before the crisis, family members have unique “lives” inside and outside the home, which are only revealed during very seldom occasions when peers and family meet, the ECQ seemingly erases the distinction between the “in” and the “out,” and confronts us with the reality of who each member truly is – discovering new aspects of our loved-ones’ life and personhood, both those desirable and those that are not. We realize, “I thought I knew you so well, but there are things I have yet to know!”

Suddenly, for those with special working arrangements, work life and home life have also collided, and the challenge to create some structure that would set clear boundaries between the two emerges (i.e., when does my time for work end and my time for household duties begin?).

Prior to the crisis, family rules and roles which have been solidified across time govern our interactions with one another, and we tend to maintain balance within the family by ensuring that we fulfill and keep up with these norms we have made ourselves. The crisis, however, challenges some of these norms. Everyone is at home, including children who are conditioned to school routines. And there is also a pressing need for parents to provide for their family amid dwindling resources.   

Most importantly, if before COVID-19 there was freedom to go “in” and “out” of the home, which, for some people, is one of the coping mechanisms when family issues become too much to bear, this is not easily possible nowadays. For others who were experiencing family-related problems before the ECQ, being with their families may be extremely difficult, and escape is not one of their options. In worst cases, domestic violence and other forms of gender-related abuses may take place as the level of stress within individuals increase. (READ: Fears of domestic violence rise as millions confined over virus)

Building family resilience amid adversity`

We still need to wait for how things will unfold in the coming days, but we are already seeing some families belaboring to get by through the quarantine. Families may be running out of stories to tell. They may be groping with activities to do with the children. Proximity may already by causing friction which when unattenuated may lead to more severe conflicts. What can be done to cope as a family?

Fortunately, what we have learned from previous crises may guide us in strengthening our family in the COVID-19 era. Froma Walsh, a psychologist, hypothesized that there are core processes which enable families to be resilient amid adversity: family belief systems, communication processes, and organizational patterns. 

For families to be able to cope with adversity, they should be able to identify potentially meaningful outcomes of a crisis situation, maintain a positive outlook while realistically assessing the risk of the situation, use humor as a mechanism to alleviate negative emotions, and hold on to hope and faith that the crisis situation is nothing but temporary. The kind of positivity we need is that which springs forth from our genuine love and care for one another and which does not shun away from the reality that what we are going through right now is truly frightening and difficult.  

Families should also be able to allow clear and open communication that enables family members to express their emotions, including fears and anxieties. Children, for instance, cope with adversities by mirroring how adults respond to the crisis situation, as well as by being able to articulate their feelings and thoughts to their caregivers. Elderlies, on the other hand, may need more information about COVID-19 as they may not have access to media and may need guidance in taking risk-prevention measures. Some family members may have needs that are different from others, and some might need more attention than the rest. As a whole, stretching our patience to mitigate unnecessary conflicts is a must.  

Families should be able to discuss as a unit their action plan for facing the challenges of COVID-19, explore sources of strengths and resources inside and outside the family, and maintain a healthy degree of flexibility to share burdens and duties. Confidence of individual members increase when they know what to do and when they are clear about the role to play in the entire COVID-19 response. In times of crisis, some family members step up and manifest skills that would have not otherwise been accessible in ordinary situations. Others reveal their vulnerabilities. It is also healthy to be genuinely interested in these revelations about one another. 

Most importantly, for families to be resilient, they should be able to tap and access social and economic resources beyond the household. This is where support from the government, particularly for those families whose capability for livelihood has been affected, is very much needed. If families’ basic needs are not met, they will surely look for means to be able to survive and this is part of their maintenance process.

COVID-19 is unprecedented. Not many of us must have thought that we would experience such a crisis in our lifetime. A few years into the future, what we are having now might be among the stories we will tell our grandchildren. But here and now, COVID-19 is a real battle that we are fighting collectively. We must hold on to our strengths, both as individuals and as families, and keep an open heart to discover, re-discover, and transform ourselves across our journey towards healing. – Rappler.com

Nephtaly Joel B. Botor is an assistant professor at the Department of Human and Family Development Studies, UPLB and the Education and Training Director of Balik Kalipay Center for Psychosocial Response, Inc. His research interest and public service initiatives are in the areas of family and community counseling, disaster mental health, and gender and development.


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