How Rituals Heal Children in Divorce

Celebrating rituals in divorce“I just can’t figure out how to make this easier for the children. They seem so distant since the divorce. Joe and I are trying, but the kids say they feel like they lost their family and nothing feels like home anymore. What can we do?” Lisa looked pleadingly at her counselor.

“Well, the holidays are coming–can you help the children look forward to those? What rituals do you have?”

“We don’t really have rituals. Holidays just aren’t a big deal for us. Joe and I follow normal parenting time for most.”

Most parents know the importance of routines for their children. They follow routines for getting ready for school, preparing for a game, or settling down for bedtime. Yet, many of these same parents shun rituals or traditions.

Much like getting children to exercise but failing to offer a healthy diet impairs children’s physical health; adopting routines but shunning rituals impairs children’s emotional and relational health. More, rituals provide children of divorce tangible foundation pieces for healing after divorce.

What are rituals?

The word “ritual” can be intimidating. Some parents assume any ritual or tradition demands huge amounts of time, energy, and money. Not so.

Rituals simply embody the unique patterns a family values. While often tied to an event or time of year, rituals can also be the everyday habits that set a family apart.

For children, habits become rituals fairly easily. If Mom pauses to sit on the bench outside school to rub noses and say goodbye two mornings in a row, the children may consider that the new “goodbye ritual.”

Rituals usually stem from what parents love. A parent’s love of football becomes the weekly backyard cookout while watching the game ritual. A parent’s love of books becomes the nightly read-aloud time. A parent’s love of camping becomes the annual Labor Day campout. Rituals are opportunities for parents to teach children what they love.

Some rituals come from generations of family tradition–Labor Day reunions, observing religious ceremonies, or serving Chinese food for Thanksgiving. These types of rituals tie children to their past.

Other rituals include the unique twists only the family understands. Code words, special names, or rules for a game only those in the family “get.” In one family, when a parent calls “OTD,” all the children know that means, “Five minutes, and we are out the door!” This simple ritual gives children a heads up that the family is leaving. More, it reinforces that their family has its own “inside” language–binding them together.

Rituals vs. Routines

Rituals and routines often overlap, but they aren’t the same thing. As Erin Walsh, of the Spark and Stitch Institute, notes, “Routine is about creating some kind of dependable structure, so children know what to expect. Ritual is about a repeated, simple set of actions or words that hold emotions, make meaning, and mark significance. Family rituals are sometimes referred to as ‘the glue that holds the family together.'”

The American Psychological Association likewise notes that routines convey information about what needs to be done–i.e. “we take a bath, brush our teeth, and ready a story to get ready for bed.” Rituals, on the other hand, convey who we are. They provide continuity in meaning across generations. A review of 50 years of research  by the APA stated that children with rituals experience better physical and emotional health along with closer ties to family. Children feel more secure and connect more deeply with others as they share in rituals–which leads to healthier adults.

Rituals help children heal from divorce

Because rituals prove key in creating identity, rituals offer healing for children of divorce. As parents find ways to continue rituals, children sense that their family still exists. As parents develop new rituals, children learn that the changes in their family can be good.

Key questions help parents focus on rituals when drafting parenting plans:

  • What old traditions can we preserve?
  • What new traditions can we begin?


What rituals or traditions can we preserve? The foundation for children’s security rests in their parents’ relationship. Divorce cracks this foundation. Parents working together to preserve key traditions or rituals helps reestablish security for their children.

How can parents make sure children still get to see the holiday lights at the race track? Still get to go to Grandma’s for the cousins’ weekend? Still get to stay up late on the longest night? As parents work together to maintain key celebrations, children grow to trust that, while their family is changing, it is still their family.

What new rituals or traditions can we begin? Some rituals can’t continue–whether because of changes in schedules or changes in life circumstances. More, even the most cooperative co-parents create unique, separate homes. Rituals prove key to creating the special identity of each home. 

Children come to anticipate the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day trip to the museum with mom and the Labor Day camping trip with dad. Rituals help children navigate and appreciate the differences between their parents and understand the identity of their homes.

The APA states that rituals prove key in protecting children of divorce. The familiarity of the rituals gives children an identity within their family and community–which protects children from seeking identity in unhealthy relationships or activities. When parents focus on protecting rituals, they help children heal from divorce.

If you have questions about how to care for your children in divorce, please email or call 317-344-9740. We look forward to serving you.

Please know that is intended for information only and not intended as advice. Consult a professional for specific advice on your situation.


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Though we come from a variety of experiences and backgrounds, the team at The Resolution Center shares one common goal: to bring healing and hope to those going through turmoil. ‘We know conflict wreaks havoc and wrecks dreams. Each of us brings specialized skills and a proven process to move people through the conflict to a place of stability, peace, and the possibility for their future.

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