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CHATing about problems before they turn toxic

Arguments between parents and their teenage children are never pretty. But with families cooped up more than ever because of the COVID-19 pandemic, these confrontations can be worse. Moreover, tensions between children and parents can be particularly acute in Asian-American families. Eunice Yuen, MD, PhD, a clinical fellow in adult and child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center, has started working with colleagues, students, and friends to produce instructional videos. The videos show how families can lower the tension level when disagreements boil over into an open argument.

“Many Asian-American families have high academic expectations for their children and worry that their children will fall behind. With COVID-19, stresses like that are heightened even further,” said Yuen. Schoolwork is a significant source of tension. Disagreements about cultural identity, sexual preference, and dealing with prejudice can also light the fuse of an argument. Before the pandemic, children spent much of their time outside the house, but that safety valve is closed for the time being.

Yuen and six others started CHAT—Compassionate Home, Action Together—in the spring to produce and disseminate their videos through social media. CHAT’S first effort is three short videos analyzing a family argument. In the beginning, the parents berate their high school-aged son for spending too much time playing video games and not enough on homework. The son argues that he is doing fine and has nothing else to do with his free time, as he cannot hang out with his friends because of social distancing measures. The result is anger, recriminations, and frustration.

In the second video, Yuen reviews what happened with the actors and discusses how different approaches from the parents and son could have defused the confrontation. The actors then play out the same scenario in the third video, using coping skills to show how the new approaches might work. It’s still a heated argument, but what plays out on screen is less stressful than the original quarrel.

The videos will address some issues that were present for Asian-American families before the pandemic. But Yuen said prejudice against Asian-Americans is more widespread now because of COVID-19. A future video series will address conflicts between children and parents about how best to deal with discrimination directed against Asian-Americans because of the disease, as well as racism among Asian families directed against the Black community.

“An Asian-American friend of mine was on the train, and he noticed that people were staying away from him and giving him dirty looks. And that can be hard to deal with,” said Alan Lee, a medical student at Yale and CHAT member who portrayed the son in the first video series. A child may look for validation of his or her feelings but not receive it because the parents may think it best to ignore the situation when there is no actual threat.

Because of restrictions in place to contain the pandemic, CHAT members had to be creative in reaching people. They live in different areas of the country, and the original plan of doing the skits live in front of an audience was not an option. The first videos were recorded on Zoom and posted on the Facebook page the group started in May. The group also wants to expand into posting short videos on Instagram and TikTok, which Lee said are more attractive than Facebook to high school- and college-aged people. Yuen said she plans to start a website for the group and would welcome others who want to get involved or offer ideas for future skits.

The CHAT group extends beyond Yale. Lee said he reached out to a high school friend named Kara Beck, who attends Drexel University and has experience in the performing arts. She and Lee co-wrote the scripts for the first video series, while Beck played the mother in the first video series.

Advising the CHAT group is Andrés S. Martin, MD, MPH, the Riva Ariella Ritvo Professor in the Child Study Center and professor of psychiatry; and Steven Sust, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.