Routines, Rituals, and Family Health
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Routines, Rituals, and Family Health

Image for family routines article Today’s families often face numerous challenges—juggling the busy demands of work and home, moving, managing economic downturns, and coping with the adjustments that accompany single parenting, divorce, and remarriage. A review of 50 years of research, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, suggests that routines and rituals may contribute to the health and well-being of families confronting the challenges of modern life.

What Are Family Routines and Rituals?

According to psychologist Barbara Fiese, PhD and colleagues at Syracuse University, there is a difference between routines and rituals in a family.


Family routines are patterned interactions among family members that are repeated over time but carry no important symbolic meaning for the family. Routines involve practical matters of day-to-day family life and generally convey the message “this is what needs to be done.” Examples of family routines include:

  • Bedtime
  • Mealtime
  • Chores
  • Regular phone contact with relatives
  • Television time


Rituals are symbolic activities that convey the message “this is who we are” as a group. Rituals provide continuity in meaning across generations. Examples of family rituals include:

  • Family reunions
  • Sunday dinner
  • Mealtime conversations
  • Birthdays
  • Holidays

The distinction between routine and ritual need not be absolute, and similar activities can have different meanings at different times or in different families. For example, cooking and serving meals involving fish is only a routine for most families. But when fish is served on Friday as part of a religious observation, it may take on symbolic meaning for the family and in the process become a ritual.

What Are the Potential Health Benefits?

Fiese and her colleagues reviewed 32 studies on family routines and rituals. In the studies, routines and rituals were assessed using questionnaires, interviews, frequency checklists, or direct observation. The reviewers observed the following potential health implications of family routines and rituals.

Regular Routines

Regular routines (bedtime, mealtime, chores, watching television, regular phone contact with relatives) were associated with:

  • Parental competence—Parents reported more satisfaction in their parenting role and felt more competent.
  • Better sleep in children—Children with regular bedtimes fell asleep sooner and woke up less frequently during the night.
  • Better health and better-regulated behavior in young children—Infants had shorter bouts of respiratory infections, and preschool children had better overall health.

Regular Routines in Nontraditional Households

The research also suggested that presence of family routines under conditions of single parenting, divorce, and remarried household might help protect children from the risks associated with such conditions. The reviewers found that single mothers who practiced regular routines felt more competent, which in turn, seemed to relate to how well the mother and child got along.

In households with regular bedtimes, children of divorced parents tended to perform better academically and were absent from school less than children of divorced parents without regular family routines.

In remarried households, adolescents were more satisfied with family life when there were regular routines.


According to the reviewers, the research suggested that rituals were associated with:

  • A sense of belonging and group membership
  • A stronger sense of identity in adolescents
  • Marital satisfaction in the early stages of parenthood

As a result of their review, Fiese and her colleagues concluded that there is an association between routines and rituals and the psychological health and well being of families. However, the scientific study of routines and rituals is in its infancy, so it is probably too early to say that routines and rituals are a cause of better family functioning. There is, however, evidence that families who manage to adopt routines and rituals function more effectively than those who do not.

What Can You Do?

Although today’s families face numerous challenges, there’s reason to believe that routines and rituals may ease the stress of daily living. Here are some suggestions that may increase your family’s observation of routines and rituals:

  • Plan to have sit-down family meals at least 2-3 times per week.
  • Enforce regular bedtimes, especially for young children.
  • Assign chores so that each family member makes a fair and regular contribution.
  • Plan family weekends often, and family vacations at least once a year.
  • Emphasize the importance of holidays (including birthdays) in your family. If your family currently has few holiday observances consider adopting new ones.


American Psychological Association

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Canadian Psychological Association

Mental Health Canada



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Denham SA. Family routines: a structural perspective for viewing family health. ANS Adv Nurs Sci . 2002;24:60-74.

Family routines. Raising Children Network website. Available at: Updated October 2007. Accessed July 29, 2008.

Fiese B, Tomcho T, Douglas M, et al. A review of 50 years of research on naturally occurring family routines and rituals: cause for celebration? J Fam Psychol. 2000;16:381-390.

Segal R. Family routines and rituals: a context for occupational therapy interventions. Am J Occup Ther. 2004;58:499-508.

Last reviewed June 2008 by Theodor B. Rais, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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