Last year as we decorated the Christmas tree my eldest picked up an ornament and asked, “Is there any story with this one?” That simple moment highlighted for me just how powerful family rituals can be. Decorating the tree is something we do together in our house. It’s something we look forward to and my teenager still happily participates along with everyone else. Reflecting on this family ritual of ours has helped me to think about how I can best support the families I work with to get the most out of their own rituals or even to create new ones.
Rituals bring families together and create moments of closeness. Ideally, we want families to come together frequently, which is why rituals like special goodbyes or weekly games nights can work well. Holidays however, are another great time to build family rituals. Holiday rituals, like more frequent rituals, vary from family to family, capturing what is important to each and creating a sense of belonging. Many of the Christmas rituals in my family centre on food, with cooking together often being central. Rituals create a sense of predictability and safety for children by nature of their sameness and provide something to look forward to.
Rituals also often serve as markers, acknowledging the passing of time and providing an opportunity to reflect on growth and change. Whether it’s noticing how high your child can now hang the ornaments or reflecting on how much their handwriting has developed when you dig out that handmade Santa from their first year at school, decorating the tree provides a chance to reflect on the changes. Sometimes rituals mark losses too, such as a first Christmas without a relative. Rituals provide an opportunity to come together and name this, sharing in the experience.
Another lovely aspect of rituals is that they also provide an opportunity for sharing and storytelling. There is an opportunity for sharing family knowledge and memories when we engage in a ritual. When we are decorating our tree we remember which ornaments came into our lives at which time. There are the ones that were made in kindergarten and others that were gifts from family and friends. I have a beautiful Christmas candle that was purchased for me by an adolescent client many years ago the first time she overcame her anxiety enough to go out shopping. It is these stories that we share as we decorate and the memories have a way of uniting us. I often encourage parents to share games, or even movies, they enjoyed as children for this reason.
Family rituals, much like our Christmas tree, are not perfect. Our tree is an often unbalanced mishmash of homemade and purchased ornaments that would no doubt make an interior designer shriek. It is in no way colour coordinated, and if I were to look objectively, I would have to acknowledge that some of the ornaments are tacky. They have however been chosen by my children over the years and were once thought beautiful. Nor is the practice of family rituals always smooth. Our tree decorating is often punctuated by disagreements over which ornaments belong to whom and whose turn it is to put the angel on top of the tree.
As with anything that brings families together there will always be disagreements and conflicts. It’s how we manage these moments that matters. When families undertake rituals, whether it’s a family games night, cooking together or going on a picnic, things can easily become derailed if parents don’t have a realistic view of how this might work. It’s worth talking with families about the likelihood that something won’t go to plan, that the children will argue, or that one of them might not want to participate. Encouraging parents to articulate any fantasy they might have in their heads about how it “should” go is also useful as this means you can think together about how this might differ from the reality. Letting go of any rigid ideas we have about how things should go and embracing the moment helps.
Family rituals change and evolve as the family grows and changes, rather than remaining the same. My children take most of the responsibility for decorating the tree now and negotiating who does what whereas previously this is something they would have needed my support with. As children grow and change rituals need to be adapted. Some may even need to be left behind, with new rituals being established. Sometimes parents will talk in therapy about a child’s refusal of, or lack of engagement with, family activities and often in this context my role is to explore how this is working for all of the family members, modifying it as needed. For example, a family who has previously always walked together after school might need to find new ways to connect once their children begin wanting to spend more time with friends in the afternoon.
We need to be mindful of supporting families to choose rituals that work for them. Obviously not all families celebrate Christmas, however even for those who do rituals work best when they fit well for the family. Decorating the tree together is not for everyone. One of my friends has a perfectly coordinated designer Christmas tree and having her children decorate it would only cause her anxiety. Similarly, the idea of cooking together with their children may not appeal to some families at all. For this reason, it is essential that we are guided by the family. Asking about what they enjoy doing together is often the best place to start. From there you can think about how they might be able to do more of that and whether they would like to create a ritual by doing it more regularly. For families who haven’t been able to engage in rituals previously it can be worth enquiring about any memories they have of activities they enjoyed in their own childhood or ideas they have about what they might like to do as a family. If you do suggest ideas do so tentatively and encourage families to try these out, promoting honest and open reflection after doing so.
Being realistic about the time a family has available is also sensible. We have lots of family traditions around Christmas and making time for these isn’t easy. It’s important that we don’t put parents in a position where they are feeling held to rituals they find stressful. In some families reducing the number of family rituals, particularly around the holidays, can actually make this a more enjoyable experience for everyone.
As we approach the holiday season reflecting on rituals can help us to support the families we work with to embrace their own rituals. Enjoy your celebrations this year, whatever form that takes for you. Happy holidays.
Dr Fiona Zandt, Clinical Psychologist
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