Family routines and rituals may improve family relationships and health

December 08, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Family routines and rituals are important to the health and well-being of today's families trying to meet the busy demands of juggling work and home, according to a review of the research over the past 50 years. The review finds that family routines and rituals are powerful organizers of family life that offer stability during times of stress and transition.

The 50-year review, part of a special section dedicated to the study of family routines and rituals in the December issue of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Family Psychology, finds that family routines and rituals are alive and well and are associated with marital satisfaction, adolescents' sense of personal identity, children's health, academic achievement and stronger family relationships.

Psychologist Barbara H. Fiese, Ph.D., and colleagues at Syracuse University begin their review by distinguishing 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.

Of the 32 studies reviewed, one of the more common routines identified was dinnertime, along with bedtime, chores, and everyday activities such as talking on the phone or visiting with relatives. The most frequently identified family rituals were birthdays, Christmas, family reunions, Thanksgiving, Easter, Passover, funerals and Sunday activities including the "Sunday dinner."

During infancy and preschool, children are healthier and their behavior is better regulated when there are predictable routines in the family, according to the review. Children with regular bedtime routines get to sleep sooner and wake up less frequently during the night than those with less regular routines, according to one study. Regular routines in the household, according to the review, shorten bouts of respiratory infections in infants and improve preschool children's health. Other studies examined whether the effects of regular routines are restricted to two-parents families. "The presence of family routines under conditions of single parenting, divorce, and remarried households may actually protect children from the proposed risks associated with being raised in nontraditional families," according to Fiese and colleagues.

Family size influences some of the routines and rituals of the family, especially the mealtime ritual. In larger families the father's caretaking role increases in order to help out while the mother's leadership role is less relative to that experienced in smaller families, one study finds. But in single-parent families or in other situations when fewer adults are available as conversation partners, more time is spent in adult-child talk than in two-parent families of similar size.

Despite these differences and the time and work challenges to arrange a family meal, the authors say the studies show the repetitive nature of the family mealtime allows families to get to know each other better, which can lead to better parenting, healthier children and improved academic performance.

"We know that families are busy, but we also know that most mealtimes only last about 20 minutes," says Dr. Fiese. "Three or four shared family meals a week is about one hour - considerable less time than a weekly televised sport event or movie. Although intervention studies have not been conducted yet there is reason to believe that regular family mealtimes that include responsive and respectful communication among members would benefit all who sit at the table."

The amount of direct influence routines and rituals has on making our lives better is up to future research. "It is likely that competent parents are more effective in creating family routines and that satisfying routines provide a sense of competence," according to the review authors. "It is also possible that families who are able to maintain routines and rituals even in the face of divorce may be distinguishable by other characteristics, such as lower levels of conflict, which can contribute to child adjustment."

Article: "A Review of 50 Years of Research on Naturally Occurring Family Routines and Rituals: Cause for Celebration?," Barbara H. Fiese, Thomas J. Tomcho, Michael Douglas, Kimberly Josephs, Scott Poltrock, and Tim Baker; Syracuse University; Journal of Family Psychology, Vol. 16, No. 4.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office.
Lead author Barbara Fiese Ph.D., can be reached at 315-443-2354 or by e-mail at

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

Contact: David Partenheimer
Public Affairs Office

American Psychological Association

Related Health Articles from Brightsurf:

The mental health impact of pandemics for front line health care staff
New research shows the impact that pandemics have on the mental health of front-line health care staff.

Modifiable health risks linked to more than $730 billion in US health care costs
Modifiable health risks, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and smoking, were linked to over $730 billion in health care spending in the US in 2016, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health.

New measure of social determinants of health may improve cardiovascular health assessment
The authors of this study developed a single risk score derived from multiple social determinants of health that predicts county-level cardiovascular disease mortality.

BU study: High deductible health plans are widening racial health gaps
The growing Black Lives Matter movement has brought more attention to the myriad structures that reinforce racial inequities, in everything from policing to hiring to maternal mortality.

Electronic health information exchange improves public health disease reporting
Disease tracking is an important area of focus for health departments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

E-health resource improves men's health behaviours with or without fitness facilities
Men who regularly used a free web resource made significantly more health changes than men who did not, finds a new study from the University of British Columbia and Intensions Consulting.

Mental health outcomes among health care workers during COVID-19 pandemic in Italy
Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and insomnia among health care workers in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic are reported in this observational study.

Mental health of health care workers in china in hospitals with patients with COVID-19
This survey study of almost 1,300 health care workers in China at 34 hospitals equipped with fever clinics or wards for patients with COVID-19 reports on their mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress.

Health records pin broad set of health risks on genetic premutation
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Marshfield Clinic have found that there may be a much broader health risk to carriers of the FMR1 premutation, with potentially dozens of clinical conditions that can be ascribed directly to carrying it.

Attitudes about health affect how older adults engage with negative health news
To get older adults to pay attention to important health information, preface it with the good news about their health.

Read More: Health News and Health Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to