Utilizing Routines & Rituals

Having regular routines can be a helpful strategy for busy parents and kids, like the time we rise from sleep each day or what time we eat. Some parents even rise first so they have some “me” time before the kids wake. The children may have scheduled piano lessons or baseball practice followed by homework completion… all making up what we know as a family routine. Now that summer has arrived, a new routine may include swimming lessons, outdoor adventures, and time for rest and relaxation.

Rituals, on the other hand, may be symbolic. For example, the celebration of a family birthday. This special occasion might also include enjoying a family meal and a “favorite dish” requested by the birthday member!  The birthday ritual itself takes on special meaning and perhaps has been shared over generations. Families may have stories to share about how the rituals celebrated were started and why they continue to be meaningful.

Routines and rituals play a special role in our families and often reflect family values.  When families face “tough times,” the routines can be interrupted. However, parents who maintain routines during the chaos will find they can be a protective factor, which may help the family feel some stability during the “tough time.”

We are connecting rituals and routines to tough times now, but The Science of Parenting team produced two bonus podcasts relating to specific losses in the pandemic (be sure to go back and listen to those, too, if you haven’t heard them already!):

Barb Dunn Swanson

With two earned degrees from Iowa State University, Barb is a Human Sciences Specialist utilizing her experience working alongside communities to develop strong youth and families! With humor and compassion, she enjoys teaching, listening and learning to learn!

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Talking to Your Kids Who Are Missing Out on Big Moments

With all that’s going on to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many important events have needed to be adjusted, postponed, or even cancelled. Some of these events may be things that we and our kids, have been looking forward to for quite some time.

I’ve seen countless stories on social media about kids and parents alike who are sad or frustrated about events getting cancelled – like prom, commencement, family reunions, state level sports competitions, weddings, the big spring theater production, holiday gatherings, and other “rites of passage”. These big feelings associated with missing out are completely understandable and valid!

Part of the reason we have these big feelings about this is that many of these events would meet the research definition of a ritual. According to a literature review by Fiese and colleagues, rituals are defined across three important characteristics. They are…

  • Symbolic – rituals are a representation of “who we are”. (In other words, the event’s meaning may be more about what it represents than what we actually do during it).
  • Enduring and affective – rituals create an emotional and impactful memory that we can look back on.
  • Meaningful across generations – Rituals give us something to look forward to that those before us and after us will also participate in.

When we look at the event cancellations that have left us with shoulders dropped and tears in our eyes, we may find that it’s because they are tied to an important ritual or rite of passage. Our kids may have been looking forward to a ritual like walking across that stage at graduation – it represents an accomplishment and transitional phase in their life; it is a significant event that has an emotional impact; and it is something that parents, siblings, friends, and additional generations take part in.

It’s completely understandable that parents and kids alike are having big feelings about these unexpected changes. As adults, we recognize that while it may be disappointing to miss these events, that we will be okay in the long run. Hopefully we are using healthy coping strategies to adjust to these changes. However, our kids don’t necessarily have the same skills that we do, so it’s important to help them navigate these cancellations and adjustments.

Here’s four steps for helping your child navigate tough feelings of disappointment or frustration about cancellation of these rituals:

  1. Find out what “rituals” or big moments specifically your child is reflecting on. There may be different events that are more important to them than you might realize. Maybe they care more about missing out on senior activity day than about prom. (Hint: that’s okay!)
  2. Ask how they are feeling about it, and then accept and acknowledge those feelings. Some kids might feel anger, disappointment, frustration, sadness, or even relief about events getting cancelled. Whatever it is they are feeling – that’s okay. Listen to your child, and try to avoid dismissive statements like “there are way worse things in the world”, “suck it up”, or “it doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things”. While some of these statements may have some truth to them, it is not very helpful or supportive. Instead, try to focus on statements like “it’s okay to feel _______”, “I know this is something you were looking forward to”, or “this is really hard”.
  3. Provide some extra attention, talk about concerns, and provide the factual reason why the big moment was cancelled or postponed. Gently remind your child of the factual reasons why the event was postponed. Also remind them that it’s not their fault, or your fault, or the school’s fault. Try to give them the extra time to express their concern or frustration.
  4. Think creatively about how we can still create some of those feelings associated with this big moment or ritual. Think about how you can use your knowledge of the definition of rituals to still create a special memory, even if it looks different than originally planned. Maybe you can reenact the moment, do something virtually, commit to celebrating at a later date, or even asking your child what they’d like to do instead.

To gain a broader understanding on rituals and the impact of missing out, please listen or watch The Science of Parenting’s mini episode, “Missing Out on Big Moments.”

Watch the video:

Or Listen (also available on most podcast apps, including Apple and Spotify!):

Mackenzie Johnson

Parent to a little one with her own quirks. Celebrator of the concept of raising kids “from scratch”. Learner and lover of the parent-child relationship. Translator of research with a dose of reality. Certified Family Life Educator.

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Families Need Traditions

Carrying out family traditions takes effort, but traditions and rituals can make families stronger.  Holidays are good times for families to celebrate annual rituals, like serving special foods, telling favorite stories, putting cherished decorations on display and creating holiday memories strengthens family ties. No need to wait for the holiday season though. Small customs like a weekly family meal, uniquely celebrating birthdays or life cycle celebrations like weddings or graduations are great places to start.

Most importantly, there are no right or wrong traditions. Families can use their own values, religion, history and culture to create traditions that are meaningful to them.

Join us this month as we talk about family traditions and rituals.




Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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Rituals in the Home

I can still hear my grandmother saying the prayer before a meal. I can still hear my father saying the same prayer. I taught the same prayer to my children and grandchildren. In fact if I am rushed before a meal and forget, one of the grandkids will remind me of the prayer. Do you have a similar ritual in your family? So prayerwhat’s my point?

It is really a simple, yet powerful, concept – rituals. Do not minimize the importance of rituals in your home. These rituals, similar yet unique in each family, have a significant impact on a child’s development of faith.

Let’s think about some other rituals you might observe. Perhaps you set up a Nativity at Christmas or light candles at Chanukkah. Maybe there are bedtime prayers or a scaled down activity schedule on the Sabbath. Religious symbols might be placed in the home. Some rituals revolve around food – eating kosher, having fish on Friday, giving up chocolate for Lent. This is just a small sampling of rituals in the home but should give you an idea of what I mean.

Granted, religious services can be part of a child’s spiritual training. But what happens in the home is part of a child’s daily life; it’s up close and personal. Home rituals also give you as the parent a chance to model (notice how I weave that concept into most topics) your own beliefs.

Donna Donald

Donna Donald is a Human Sciences specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach who has spent her career working with families across the lifespan. She believes families are defined by function as well as form. Donna entered parenthood as a stepmother to three daughters and loves being a grandmother of seven young adults.

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Parenting and Natural Disasters

I hope everyone had a great 4th of July!  Mine was spent at a small resort town, where as with most towns, a highlight for everyone is the big fireworks display.  We did our best to prep my 3 year old cousin for the event, including talking with her about what she could expect (loud lights, big “booms”), and giving her earplugs.  Despite our best efforts, she still found the big “booms” terrifying, and had to retreat into the house with her mom.  Some of you may have experienced a similar situation with your children this 4th.

If such a beautiful display of lights can cause such fear and angst for a child, imagine what feelings a natural disaster could evoke.  In line with this month’s podcast about natural disasters, I wanted to highlight a few important steps that parents can take to help their children in the event of a natural disaster.

  1. Let your children know that you are there to keep them safe.  Let them know you are still a family, you will still provide a safe environment, and you will make it through this.
  2. Ask your children what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard, and how they feel about it.  Children will need a chance to discuss their feelings.  Listen to them, reassure them of their safety, and give them lots of hugs and love.  You will likely need to revisit the topic multiple times, as the information, understanding, and feelings children have about the event will change and need to be discussed.  It can also be helpful for you and/or your children to speak with a grief counselor.
  3. Maintain routines or rituals.  Maintaining activities that provide a sense of security and comfort can help your children cope with the events.  For example, eating dinner together or reading a book before bed can help children feel a sense of normalcy and comfort.

What questions do you have about helping your child cope with natural disasters?

Donna Donald

Donna Donald is a Human Sciences specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach who has spent her career working with families across the lifespan. She believes families are defined by function as well as form. Donna entered parenthood as a stepmother to three daughters and loves being a grandmother of seven young adults.

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