How To Handle Your First Family Reunion Since the Pandemic

Family Christmas parties can be tricky, so we asked a psychologist how to keep them merry and bright.

09 December 2021, 5:25am

It’s your first family reunion in two years. Have your uncle’s views on LGBTQ people changed? Is an aunt campaigning for another questionable politician? Will your grandmother think you’re rude for not eating lechon because you’re vegan?

Family reunions in the Philippines have always been tricky. But the fact that many extended families in the country haven’t been able to reunite since the pandemic started, combined with the abundance of topics up for heated debate (healthcare and an upcoming election season, for example) makes this impending holiday gathering all the trickier.

“It’s going to be a different reunion compared to what happened perhaps two years ago,” Michael Jimenez, a Filipino psychologist based in Manila, told VICE, explaining how they will be different in two ways: physically and emotionally.

They will be different in a physical sense because COVID-19 may still be keeping some family members on their toes about safety precautions. “Are you going to hug your grandparents? Are you going to ‘mano po’ (the traditional pressing of an elder’s hand on one’s forehead as a sign of respect)?” asked Jimenez. 

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Because of this, Jimenez said that people have to prepare for the possibility that some family members just won’t be as physically affectionate as expected, wanted, or as they used to be.

“You shouldn’t take it personally, and you should not compare other people,” he said, adding that while someone’s grandmother might be down to hug, that doesn’t mean their aunt will be too.

The reunions might be different emotionally, Jimenez said, especially for those who have lost family members to COVID-19. “Perhaps there are people who they saw two years ago who won’t be able to make it this year. There will be [chairs] that were once occupied, but because of COVID, are now empty.”

These physical and emotional differences set the stage for the next family reunion. It may be daunting and even a little anxiety-inducing, but Jimenez said one way for people to prepare for it is to simply remember why they’re there.

“You have to be aware of your purpose. That’s the very first thing you have to ask yourself: What’s the purpose of attending the reunion?” Jimenez said, adding that whatever that purpose is will direct one’s behavior throughout the event.

For many people, the purpose of a reunion is in the name itself—to reunite, to reconnect. These events may not be the best time to get into strong arguments about things like politics, as those often lead to conflict instead of connection, but surely, these sensitive topics will come up. Jimenez said it’s best to prepare in advance for how to react.

He explained that when faced with opposing views on sensitive topics, people usually react in two extreme ways: getting aggressive or ignoring the topic altogether. Getting aggressive will cause conflict, while ignoring the topic simply ends the conversation without resolving much, so Jimenez pointed to a middle ground.

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“Acknowledging the topic is very important,” he said, suggesting that if one’s relative starts campaigning for a politician they wouldn’t vote for, they can acknowledge the choice, then respectfully ask the relative to explain why. Of course, this can be difficult to do amidst the rich cast of typical Filipino families. 

“You will always have that one family member who will be intrusive, who will be provocative,” Jimenez said, adding that it may not be a bad idea for other family members to brief these provocative ones about things they shouldn’t do. This includes sharing problematic political views, but also microaggressions like pointing out weight gain and asking why couples don’t have kids yet. When these things are brought up, younger family members are usually expected to still act respectfully. 

“As far as the Filipino culture is concerned, we hear of doting mothers, doting uncles, doting aunts, and usually the reaction of their nieces and nephews is to be silent about it, or rant about it on social media.”

These non-reactions are usually driven by wanting to keep the peace at gatherings. Sometimes, it may be good for people to simply let the unhelpful comments roll off their backs. The reunion won’t last forever, after all, and those difficult characters will be out of sight in a few hours. But other times, Jimenez said, you need to express your emotions and stand up for what you believe in. “If you think that the comment is already something that is aggressive, something you cannot be grateful for, then you have to be honest.” 

He advised communicating this in a four-part statement: First is to point out the hurtful comment or action, then say what it caused, followed by how it made you feel, and lastly to ask the speaker of the comment or the doer of the action to not say or do it again. For example: “Uncle, when you told me I was fat, everybody in the room laughed. I felt really sad. Please don’t do it again.” Perhaps the person really did not mean to be hurtful, so this is a way to start a conversation without being disrespectful.

Jimenez acknowledged that it may not be easy to do, but it’s a good way to communicate even outside reunions.

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“It takes courage to say that, but I hope that that’s how people communicate with each other not just during reunions, but every time a person gets hurt, feels annoyed, feels that their rights have been violated—that they will have that courage to tell the other person,” Jimenez said.

The seemingly tactless actions of older family members may just be well-meaning but confused responses to the unfamiliar behaviors of younger members.

Jimenez explained that older family members tend to feel like their past experiences of being teenagers and growing up afford them the right to instruct and advise the youth of today. While this may be true to an extent, the problem is that today’s youth don’t necessarily want to be identified with and limited by the lives of older generations. 

In this situation, Jimenez said that older generations should accept that younger generations are trying to create their own identity instead of having it be dictated to them. The key, he said, is an openness to ideas. 

“Older generations should be open to their nephews coming with boyfriends or their nieces coming with girlfriends,” Jimenez said, noting gender and sexuality as examples of ideas older generations would do well to be open to at their next family reunion.

The younger generations, on the other hand, should remember that new ideas will elicit different reactions from different people. These reactions can vary from unconditional acceptance to downright rejection, and they should learn to manage that. Jimenez said they don’t need to explain, convince, or apologize, but neither can they change people’s reactions.

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“They can only calibrate how to respond to other people’s reactions. They may want to mingle with those people who approve of their convictions, or perhaps listen to those who are on the opposite side to understand where they’re coming from. Either way, they get to widen their perspective as they appreciate different mindsets and viewpoints.”

Physical limitations, new emotions, difficult characters, and sensitive topics aside, Jimenez said that holiday family reunions—especially the first one in two years—are occasions to come together and celebrate. 

“A reunion should be filled with positive emotions, wherein you cultivate joy, interest, inspiration, serenity, gratitude, and curiosity, instead of being a critic.”

Follow Romano Santos on Instagram.

Tagged:

christmas, family, Holidays, Philippines

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