Family rituals the secret to strong families, psychologist says
WHAT are your three favourite childhood memories from early family life? For some, sifting through childhood memories in search of good times may kickstart a default lens that scans for the disappointments that family life delivered.
For others, the trip down memory lane will quickly uncover special times on holidays or memorable milestones.
But I'm guessing for many readers, positive memories will be found in the simple, seemingly unremarkable, family rituals that were cherished.
Shared meals, regular movie nights, books read, outings, games, TV shows, songs or activities that were practised repeatedly.
It's no wonder these fond ritualistic memories find their way to the surface for many of us.
Family routines and rituals are an important factor in healthy family life. They help children and parents to feel good, and they create a sense of belonging and identity, by letting everyone know what's important to the family unit.
Rituals also offer stability during times of stress and transition and are associated with higher levels of marital satisfaction, adolescents' sense of personal identity, children's health, academic achievement and stronger family relationships.
Psychologist Barbara H. Fiese, Ph.D., and her colleagues at Syracuse University distinguish the difference between a family routine and a family ritual.
"Routines involve instrumental communication conveying information that 'this is what needs to be done' and involve a momentary time commitment so that once the act is completed, there is little, if any, afterthought," says Dr Fiese.
"Rituals, on the other hand, involve symbolic communication and convey 'this is who we are' as a group and provide continuity in meaning across generations. Also, there is often an emotional imprint where once the act is completed, the individual may replay it in memory to recapture some of the positive experience."
Any routine has the potential to become a ritual once it moves from an instrumental to a symbolic act.
The good news for busy parents is that cultivating rituals is simple.
There is no perfect ritual recipe. Powerful and meaningful rituals need only be enjoyable, accessible and able to be practised regularly for them to become a sustainable thread in the fabric of a healthy family household.
In fact, many families will already be involved in simple rituals such as meal sharing or weekly movie nights. Recent studies link regular family dinners with positive outcomes including lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression, as well as higher grades and self-esteem.
While watching a movie together can provide a fun and bonding experience that also provides a catalyst for conversation in the hours, days and weeks that follow.
While the pitfalls of excessive screen time have been addressed ad nauseam, it's less well recognised that actively sharing a movie experience with our kids can enhance and expose children to new content, language, and even relationship dynamics.
Watching a much-loved classic can draw out our own memories of the film, leading to intergenerational storytelling, or even the teaching of favourite song lyrics (my teen girls know every line and song from Grease!).
Exploring age appropriate film content together can prompt conversations which help facilitate a deeper understanding of the way our children are currently thinking and feeling.
As is the case with many family activities, the most potent ingredient is active parental engagement with children while enjoying the experience together.
Strong connections are built on the small, loving things we do and say regularly, not the one- off bells and whistles outings that end up on Facebook.
In addition to facilitating a sense of security and predictability, a childhood history steeped in family rituals also provides a robust template of belonging and meaning to take into our adult years. Who doesn't want that for the next generation?
Sabina Read is a psychologist, coach and speaker who works with individuals, couples, families and organisations. She is the Resident Psychologist on Afternoons on Radio 3AW and The Morning Show, and an Ambassador for The Family Peace Foundation.