Rituals recommended to "reconnect" families


An effective antidote for families left exhausted and frazzled from holiday activities and stresses is to start the New Year by resolving to adopt family rituals that keep them connected. That's the advice of Dr. Ingeborg Haug, an associate professor of marriage and family therapy education at Fairfield University.

"The pressures can be so great on families today," says Dr. Haug "We have many families where both parents work and where children are overscheduled and families under-connected. In the midst of this, it is important to create rituals that we can depend on to bring us together."

One of the opening lines of "Fiddler on the Roof," she points out, is the question, "How do we keep our balance?" Tevye, the father, answers, "Tradition," explaining, "Without our traditions, our life would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof."

"Children love rituals," says Dr. Haug, "and we adults draw comfort and security from them as well. Rituals add predictability and safety to our often hectic or even chaotic lives. They provide connection and a sense of 'we-ness.'"

Rituals, she says, mark transitions during the day as well as during stages in our lives, such as graduations and weddings. Being mindful of creating daily rituals, even something as simple as sharing the evening meal, is especially important because it gives structure and comfort to our day. "The old wisdom that the family gathers around the table to reconnect is still valid."

Bedtime rituals for children, such as reading them a story, asking them about their day, and helping them to say their prayers, are especially important, Dr. Haug notes. "Families often become so invested about a child's popularity, their involvement in sports and their scholastic achievement, that every moment is scheduled and the quiet times together are cut short."

Dr. Haug, who has a private clinical practice, stresses the importance of helping children to become emotionally well rounded, saying "They will do better in the long run, regardless of their I.Q."

She encourages families to discuss these matters with other families. Parents who want to create a wholesome structure for their children can receive valuable support from other parents who share the same values and concerns for their children.

Dr. Haug also recommends paying attention to life cycles such as birthdays and summer vacations. One well-to-do family minimized the importance of birthdays, feeling that the children's day-to-day needs were being generously met. "Yet the tradition, or ritual, of marking a family member's birthday lets him or her know they are worthy of being singled out for attention and affection," explains Dr. Haug.

In the same way, spending time hiking each summer or doing some other activity that is fun for everyone can bond a family together. "It's not material things that reassure children. It's providing them with enjoyable experiences where they feel safe and contained and cared for," Dr. Haug says. "Being generous with our time, our attention and patience is more important than being generous with material things."

And in planning family rituals, parents must remember to make time for themselves, Dr. Haug emphasizes. "There should be some 'sacred time' to slow down, to keep in touch with what is happening in each other's life. Research shows that after the birth of the first child, couples often begin a process of alienation. Couples need to find ways to stay connected, to make time for each other."

Just as important as developing rituals to bring couples and families together, she says, is allowing yourself to let some things go. In trying to "provide the best" for our children, with music lessons and sports activities, parents can unwittingly put too much pressure on them and over-schedule them. She says she has seen patients in her practice, young and old, who many of us would see as "successful," but who take no joy in their success and feel empty and dissatisfied.

"This is not a call to mediocrity," she cautioned. "It is simply stepping back and recognizing that the truly successful around us are happy, well adjusted people who have achieved a balance in their lives. That doesn't come from exhausting activity; it comes from putting a premium on what truly nurtures us."

Dr. Haug is clinical director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Counseling Center at Fairfield University, conducted by the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions. Counseling services at the Center are open to the public and fees are kept to a minimum. For information or to make an appointment, please call (203) 254-4000, ext. 2306.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on December 23, 2000

Vol. 33, No. 111