Creating Rituals to Build Family Closeness

I am the parent of a middle schooler, and I’m here as the voice of the future for parents of younger children.

Even when we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic, parenting a middle-school kiddo is full of drama—there’s sweetness and heartbreaking vulnerability and unpredictable mood swings and crushes and screen time battles and mean girls. It’s also a time when your kids need you more and simultaneously pull away from you and focus on their friends. This is incredibly bittersweet as your baby is growing up and making her own decisions with her own agendas, while at the same time she is—maddeningly—making her own decisions with her own agendas!

Speaking from the future, I want to share some important words of wisdom for parents of young kids: create family rituals. They help us stay connected and grounded, especially when everything else feels like it’s spinning out of control. We had many rituals when my daughter was young. When she became too “cool” for us, we set aside many of the old ones in favor of a Netflix movie night and the occasional Sunday hike.

Family rituals are different from habits. Rituals are done intentionally with the purpose of creating and sustaining closeness between family members or other groups. Habits happen unconsciously, or without thought. On the surface, rituals and habits can look the same, but rituals have a deeper psychological benefit, particularly during unstable times. Behavioral neuroscientist Nick Hobson, Ph.D., writes that engaging in these ritual activities amid stress can “trick the brain into thinking that it’s experiencing the pleasant state of predictability and stability.”

Rituals can be done daily, weekly, monthly, or during special times. The important thing is for the rituals to be consistent and predictable.

Predictability: A Three-Part Structure

Dr William J. Doherty, author of The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties, writes that meaningful family rituals are composed of three parts, or phases: Transition, Enactment, and Exit.

  • The Transition Phase signals to all family members that the ritual is about to begin and you can focus yourselves on connecting. Lighting candles at the dinner table is a good way to signify to everyone that the special time is beginning. When my kiddo was younger, we used to hold hands before a meal and say, “Thanks to all the creatures great and small who made this meal possible,” with each person saying one word at a time around the circle until we came to the end. At a certain point, we went crazy and added other words like “and nutritious,” “and delicious,” “and yummy,” which would go on forever until someone became impatient and dove in.
  • The Enactment Phase brings everyone together in a shared activity, during which you are connecting and sharing authentically. This might be the dinner itself or a bedtime ritual. Many families play the game Rose and Thorn, in which you share the highlights of your day (rose), the biggest challenge (thorn), and maybe something you’re looking forward to or are grateful for (bud). Try to be as specific as possible. Gratitude for little things is a practice that builds resilience, as does talking in an age-appropriate way about your frustrations and how you intend to approach them tomorrow. When you reflect on your challenges and thoughtful responses, you are modeling good behavior and decision-making as well as the messy but critical skill of grappling with uncertainty.
  • The Exit Phase signifies to everyone that the ritual is over. Blowing out candles, a bedtime kiss, or a secret handshake all work here. For our daughter’s bedtime, we had an elaborate combination of kissing both sides of her face plus a Kissing Hand from the classic children’s book. We would kiss her palm and she would kiss ours, and we’d put our hands over our hearts and make a little whsssh! sound.

With so much uncertainty these days–not to mention the fact that we’re all home and in each other’s faces a lot now–rituals provide a predictable structure for us to enter into quality time with each other and deepen our connections as a family. While our family is sheltering in place, we brought back the ritual of thanking all the creatures great and small who made the meal possible. This simple ritual inspires thoughtful conversations of all the incredible interdependence of those who provide food–the farmers who grew the wheat, the packaging designers, the delivery people, the people behind the FDA standards, the folks at the grocery store.

Although rituals started during this difficult time may fall away once the world starts up again, the groundwork is laid. As your family’s time starts filling up, talk about which rituals are the most meaningful to them and find ways to adapt them to your lives. When you start building rituals while your kids are young, there’s a good chance they will be more resilient and maybe develop resilience-building rituals of their own.

More Resources for Ritual-Making

By Betty Ray, founder of the Center for Ritual Design, based in Oakland, CA.

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