The Overlooked Factor that Helps You Bond With Your Kids

Reliable family rituals promote bonding, development, cooperation, and comfort.

Posted Feb 03, 2018

Research suggests that family routines are related to parenting competence, child adjustment, and marital satisfaction. Studies suggest that routines can also promote children's language acquisition, academic skills, social skills, and emotional bonds with their parents.

Here are 4 ways routines reduce power struggles, calm stressful circumstances, and promote humor, stability, and closeness among families:

1. Routines Invite Cooperation

Laura Markham of Aha Parenting notes that having set routines helps prevent kids from feeling “pushed or bossed around” because they know the activity “is just what we do at this time of day.” Knowing what to expect helps them develop a sense of mastery and helps them be less oppositional, more cooperative, and more independent.

One way to develop routines is with when/then wording. For example, "When you have your pajamas on, then we can read a book."

When you set up expectations such as:

  • "all homework must be done before an electronic device is turned on," 
  • "you must be dressed for school before you have breakfast," or
  • "your room needs to be clean before you go out on Friday night," 

you drastically reduce daily power struggles.

The alternative - arbitrary amounts of T.V. time, random bedtimes, inconsistent responsibilities, haphazard dinners, or a jumbled order of activities - Markham argues, invites conflicts.

2. Routines Offer Safety, Comfort, and Ease to the Day

Knowing what to expect and when to expect it helps kids feel safe and move through their days with greater ease. For example, research suggests that children with regular bedtime routines tend to sleep better and longer. Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution, details how being absolutely consistent about a baby’s bedtime routine – such as bath, book, turn same light on, sing same lullaby, play same white noise, and give same pacifier and lovey – in the same order every day “cues” a baby that it’s bedtime, provides comfort, and helps him or her fall asleep easier. Having a set routine for after-school or weekends also helps kids relax and cooperate.

3. Routines Act as a "Stability Anchor" and Relieve Stress

Research suggests that the comfort and predictability stemming from routines acts as a "stability anchor," helps both parents and children relieve stress, reinforces emotional calm, and decreases anxiety

Routines also help comfort children in unfamiliar or tough circumstances. For example, if your child loves listening to you read a bedtime story before lights go out, doing so may help her sleep when she’s in a different environment. In an early childhood setting, a routine can be developed between a parent and child or a teacher and child to ease separations. In a doctor's office or hospital, rituals can ease stress over blood draws, shots, or difficult procedures. 

Source: Wavebreakmedia/DepositPhotos

According to Steinglass and colleagues (1987), family stress is often first noted by the disruption of family routines. However, if routines are maintained under potentially vulnerable conditions such as divorce or financial strain, families are able to adapt better to change. Routines can also help family members stay connected despite interpersonal conflicts (Lisitsa, 2013).

How to Transform One-Offs Into Routines With Kids - Examples:

Source: ErinLeyba

Routines Are Made Better With Rituals, Which Ingrain Sweet Memories

Adding rituals to routines makes them even more powerful. Rituals can be defined as “the sweetness, fun, or warmth that accompany routines.” They are "acts that provide extra meaning, communicate “this is who we are” (as a family), build family ties, offer a sense of belonging, and help build love and connection." 

A ritual can be a crazy handshake, a special song at bath time, or the way you always wink at your daughter and say the same thing each time you drop her off at school. It may be things that no one but your family understands - code words, inside jokes, a way you celebrate a holiday together, or your own rules for sports games. These repetitive, fun, or creative behaviors strengthen family ties.

  • One family played an animal guessing game each time an extra bit of food, such as an extra potato or an extra slice of pie, was left over that more than one person wanted. "I'm thinking of an animal," they'd start, and everyone who wanted the food would guess until someone won the game (and the food), even if it took an hour.
  • A few dads took their kids on a silly-clothes bike ride on the first Sunday of every month. They'd wear mismatched socks, checkerboard shirts, Batman costumes, capes, and crazy scarves and bike through a forest preserve laughing and trying to outdo each other.
  • A father got his two girls flower corsages every Easter from when they were 2 years old until they were 30 years old.
  • A family gathered each St. Patrick's Day and sang along loudly as their grandmother played lively tunes, followed by a huge meal of corned beef hash and green cupcakes.
  • A mom sent her daughter with a ziplock bag with a piece of candy and a sweet note every time she went for a sleepover at her grandparents' house, a friend's house, or camp.

While some rituals may have been passed down from grandparents or other relatives (like always reading Uncle Scrooge comic books when you’re home sick or always wrapping raw carrots in pepperoni slices), others may be created with your new family. Some rituals offer opportunities for positive humor, which, research suggests, is related to family satisfaction. Most importantly, as Ellie Lisitsa of the Gottman Institute writes, rituals ensure that you take time for emotional connection.

How do you start rituals and keep them going? In his book, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg names three parts of developing a new behavior:

  1. the cue or trigger,
  2. the behavioral routine, and
  3. the reward - or something your brain likes that helps it remember the "habit loop" in the future.

Identify one sweet ritual you could add to a holiday, birthdays, Sunday afternoons, morning times, bed times, or meal times. Do it once and take time to notice what you enjoyed about it - like a smile, a feeling of connection, a laugh, a calm, or a warmth. Tuning into the subtle reward may help you build the motivation to make it a habit.

Erin Leyba, LCSW, Ph.D. is an individual and couples counselor in Chicago's western suburbs. She is the author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents: 101 Ideas for Overcoming Fatigue, Stress, and Guilt - and Building a Life You Love (New World Library). Join her on Facebook or sign up to get free articles on parenting with mindfulness and joy.