Rituals provide kids of all ages with a sense of consistency, identity, and familial connection that lasts well into adulthood. 

family dinner
Credit: Peden and Munk

From favorite holiday meals to a special hug at the end of the day, you may not even realize how many rituals you share with your family—or how meaningful they are to your child. Rituals give kids of all ages a sense of consistency, identity, and connection that they can carry with them into adulthood.

Barbara Fiese, professor and director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has spent decades researching the effect of rituals on children. "[Rituals] are very important today because they provide a way to disconnect from a hectic and screen-driven world," Fiese says.

Unlike routines—which are also important for kids—rituals have symbolic meaning. Routines are structured activities focused on what needs to be done at a specified time, whereas rituals convey something deeper about a family's identity.

Psychologically, Fiese says, rituals "provide symbolic connections between repeated behaviors that have strong emotional elements. Over time, we create images of these gatherings, events or even recurring sayings that are connected to emotions."

family picnic at the beach
Credit: iStockphoto

"When we recall these events, we also experience the emotions as well," she adds. "It's like a holding a snapshot in your mind while also getting a rush of the emotion that went along with the brief moment."

Here are some specific ways rituals can help children feel more secure.

  • Rituals provide a sense of order that is especially comforting for young children. Fiese notes that they can offer a starting point of how to be a member of the family and understand roles.
  • Rituals help older children develop a sense of identity. "Family rituals give the child a sense of who they are, a sense of pride, and a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves," says Rebekah Springs, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Portland, Oregon. "These elements are all predictors of emotional health in adulthood!"
  • Rituals can be healing for children going through tough transitions. Divorce, a big move, or the birth of a sibling can be challenging for kids, but rituals can help. "[They] provide a child who is feeling lost, confused, or disorganized with predictability and meaning and a sense of community," Springs says.
  • Rituals can help in areas where your child struggles, like falling asleep at night, for example. Springs suggests implementing a more ritualized experience like introducing a lovey (for children 12 months and older), saying a prayer, or allowing them to tuck a doll into bed before they get into bed. "This can give stability and meaning to an experience that might feel disorganized or anxious," Springs says.
  • Rituals have protective functions for children with chronic illness. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, which looked at the impact of pediatric cancer on family rituals, found that, although rituals may have to be adapted after a diagnosis, they can help improve family interactions and provide a sense of normalcy in the face of adversity 

Ready to create some rituals of your own? Fiese says you shouldn't overthink it too much. "Very small rituals can have just as powerful an effect as large, elaborate ones," she says. "Indeed, if you work too hard at it, then you are likely going to be too stressed and then undo some of the positive effects."

She suggests looking out for small ways to incorporate rituals into your family calendar, like pizza Thursday or game night Saturdays. "Think about the routines you already engage in or the areas you have the most value around," Springs adds. "Then, add in elements of ritual—consistency, the telling of a meaningful story, significant objects or action, and togetherness."