“Multistressed families in Singapore: A focus on transnational families”: What does it mean to be “multistressed”?

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Journal article: Chiu, M. Y., Ghoh, C., Chung, G., & Choi, K. P. (2019). Multistressed families in Singapore: A focus on transnational families. Children and Youth Services Review, 101, 372-382.

Broadly, the study by Chiu et al. (2019) makes two unsurprising but important findings: First, that multi-stressed families (or MF) – compared to the average Singaporean family – have lower levels of financial, human, and social capital to meet their needs; and second, that among these MF, transnational families have even more needs related to system barriers compared to their non-transnational counterparts. Even though these findings have useful implications for family interventions, it might also be productive to consider our definitions and understandings of “multi-stress”, to study MF who might not be receiving social services, and to evaluate the well-being of the youths across different environments.

Three research questions guide the study:

  1. What is the socio-demographic profile and family functioning of MF?
  2. Among MF, what are the socio-demographic profile and family functioning differences between transnational and non-transnational families?
  3. What is the relationship between family characteristics (such as family cohesion, family flexibility, and family income) and youth resilience?

As aforementioned, in response to the first question, MF have lower levels of capital compared to the average family in Singapore: Their parents have low education levels and are unemployed or employed part-time, they do not have dual-parent support, and they are poorer and lack resources. In response to the second question, it was consistent with the hypotheses that transnational families have “(1) local fathers who are older in age, (2) wider age difference between spouses, (3) lower family income, (4) more system needs” (p. 379). Unexpectedly, however, there was a higher proportion of unemployed fathers in transnational MF, who were also more likely to have health problems which reduced their employability.

And in response to the third question, higher family flexibility – defined as “the ability of the family to change its role relationships, family rules, and power structure in response to changes in circumstances” (p. 376) – is related to higher youth resilience.

Chiu et al. (2019) also acknowledged limitations of the study, all of which are not unusual. Some of the data was self-reported from the perspectives of the parents and youths, who may have completed the questionnaires with some bias. Next, the research design is cross-sectional – meaning that data was only collected and analysed at a single time-point – and while there is information about what is happening, we do not necessarily know how or why it is happening. Finally, and relatedly, the relationships between family characteristics and youth resilience are associations or correlations, not cause-effect or causation.

Three more questions (or limitations) can also be considered for this study and future research:

Definitions and understandings of “multi-stress”: As per the study and the Ministry of Social and Family Development, a family is multistressed if it is “assessed to experience at least three system barriers in accessing help based on the system needs form” (p. 374). The 10 system need types are: Employment, housing, financial assistance, child care service, student care services, education, training / job skills upgrading, legal services, health services, and mental health services. In this vein, it is worthwhile to consider the extent to which these need types are similar, the intensity of each need type, and whether three is a reasonable cut-off point. In other words, how and under what conditions do we define if a family is multistressed? And given that any family would at some point experience some form of stress or stressor, what is normative?

MF beyond the scope of social service organisations: The MF in this sample sought help from 11 community-based social service centres and participated in the “Strengthening Families Together” government-funded pilot scheme, and therefore it would be more representative to reach out to MF and transnational families which may not be receiving such services. In fact, given the many challenges faced by transnational families (p. 373), they may be wary about approaching government-linked organisations. And more broadly, it would be meaningful to find out the overall number of MF and transnational families in Singapore.

The well-being of the youths across different environments: In adolescence, it is not just the family which influences the development or resilience of a youth, but also his or her school and community environments. Moreover, it is well-documented in extant literature that peers have an increasing influence on the behaviours and well-being of the youth. This is further complicated in this sample, because the age range of the youths is from 12 to 21. Put otherwise: The experience of someone who is just completing his or her primary school would different significantly from another who is a national serviceman or enrolled in a polytechnic or a university. Moving ahead, perhaps age ranges could be narrowed or particular social environments further specified in the analyses.

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