Family traditions: How they build happier people (and how to create your own!)

When you think back to your childhood, can you recall any family traditions? For some people, the answer is solid and clear: every year, without fail, the family would pack up the car and trundle off to a certain caravan spot, or to a cottage, or to visit Grandma who lived further afield. For others, it might not be as clearly marked — they might have had a few quirky Easter traditions, or maybe Father’s Day was always spent at the riverside doing a spot of fishing, like Life of a Fisherman's Wife does with her family. 

Whatever traditions you had, no doubt they have created a fair few stories and memories to cherish and share. But did you know that family traditions can bring a whole host of psychological benefits, particularly for teenagers and young adults?

Happy people have happy memories
Yesel Yoon’s thesis on the impact of family traditions in relation to psychological wellbeing, claims one of the biggest tasks facing children and adolescents as they grow up is the development of emotion regulation. Emotion regulation is, essentially, the management of our emotional response to things. It is the ability to respond to experiences with a range of socially tolerable emotions and reactions, including being able to restrain spontaneous reactions if the situation demands it, i.e. avoiding knee-jerk reactions to situations. Our ability to do this well as adults could be linked to how well we are taught to do this as children.

Family traditions is suspected to play a major role in developing emotional regulation in children and teenagers. The idea behind this is that family traditions and rituals create a stable environment.

However, it isn’t enough to simply establish a family tradition; Yesel’s study of 492 college students found that it wasn’t the frequency of family traditions that positively impacted their psychological wellbeing as they emerged into adulthood. Instead, it was the sense of meaning prescribed to family traditions that had the greatest impact on their wellbeing — meaningful family traditions were the key. So, dragging the kids out fishing every last weekend in May might be a tradition, but despite its stable frequency, if they attach little meaning to it, it will likely have little positive outcome on them. But taking them out every summer for a forest walk to learn about the wildlife and any stories you might have of that very forest from when you were a child? This is likely to attach a far greater sense of meaning to the tradition.

Let’s take a look at some meaningful family traditions you can establish with these benefits in mind:

Escaping the digital world
Children are facing the pressures of the digital world more than ever. Both at home and at school, there’s little to no disconnect from it. That’s not always a bad thing, but on the flip side, it’s not always a good thing either. Too much of anything can be damaging, and it’s beneficial to teach your children that a little time away from screens and controllers can be healthy. For example, you could hire cottages in Northumberland.

Your kids might not be enthusiastic about this idea at its base, so you’ll need to give them a reason to look forward to their digital disengagement. For example, taking a family holiday in the UK gives your family the chance to embrace the natural world with plenty of walks and woodlands to scope out. You could host a BBQ if it’s sunny, with a traditional family food item established just for this event!

Explore the family’s culture or history
Sometimes, the feeling of something being ‘uniquely ours’ that leaves the greatest impact and the greatest sense of pride. Brett McKay from ArtofManliness.com recounts one such family tradition that stuck with his brother and himself through to their adult years — the celebration of their family’s heritage in Mexico through their great-great-grandmother.

Acknowledging and celebrating of their Mexican lineage took the form of a family tradition: a Christmas Eve feat of tamales, pozole, sopapillas, and enchiladas. McKay recalls enjoying the majority of the food, though the pozole was something he and his brother dreaded, as well as being very proud that his family had quite a unique tradition among his schoolfriends. Even the dislike of pozole became something to connect with his family about in later life!

Just us
If you have more than one child, a meaningful family tradition doesn’t need to be something grand or all-encompassing. Why not have a unique tradition to maintain between you and each of your kids? Perhaps a yearly tradition for the eldest could be that you carve pumpkins together ahead of Hallowe’en; for the youngest, maybe they would be more interested in being Chief Egg Painter for Easter with you?

This doesn’t have to be a clockwork frequency either. Remember, the importance is placed on the meaning behind the tradition. Even a small moment outdoors, when the night is clear enough, showing your kids which constellations and asterisms are in the sky above them can have a lasting impact as a cherished moment. For the UK, one of the easiest star patterns to spot is the Plough, as it is made of the seven brightest stars in Ursa Major. From here, you should be able to find the North Star, Polaris, close by.

To add another bonus, why not rope some healthy eating into this stargazing tradition? As outlined by the BBC, you can show your child the scale of the solar system with some select fruits and veggies!

· Mercury — represented with a single peppercorn (don’t eat this!)
· Venus — a cherry tomato
· Earth — also a cherry tomato
· Mars — a blueberry
· Jupiter — a watermelon
· Saturn — a large grapefruit
· Uranus — an apple
· Neptune — a lime

This technique highlights how these fruits and veggies put all the planets in relative size, with Earth being a cherry tomato. It really helps to show kids just how big some of the planets in our solar system are and let’s face it — nothing sounds cooler to their friends as a family tradition than “we eat the solar system”.

What meanings will you be building into traditions you already have to help with your children’s wellbeing?

Yoon, Yesel, The Role of Family Routines and Rituals in the Psychological Well Being of Emerging Adults (2012). Masters Theses 1911 - February 2014. 965


  1. Thanks ! Inspiring read

  2. we have lots of family traditions which all seem perfectly routine to us, until our Daughter got married and our Son-in-Law now has to participate in our quirky things, many of which we have no real explanation for.

  3. I find traditions are hugely comforting.