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Rituals & Holidays

Rituals & Holidays

Robert J.Ackerman PhD

If you’re like most Americans, November and December are months of great celebration. These months are filled with the gathering of families, the expression of love between friends and family members, specific ceremonies, and the same behaviors and events that occur year after year to celebrate Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas. All of these acts are customarily repeated behaviors; they are rituals. In this age of science and neuroscience we study genetic predispositions and inherited traits that are passed from one generation to the next. However, the other things that are passed from one generation to the next are family rituals. These rituals are often carried over from our childhoods and our parents. They reflect the emotional impact we receive from our families. They include not only behaviors, but also the emotional closeness of our families and friends, as well as thoughts of gratitude and reflection on the quality of our lives. They provide moments to assess what really matters in our lives with appreciation for all that we have been given.

All this sounds great, but what about families that are struggling with addiction? Do they have rituals? If so, what kind of rituals? Instead of the “holidays” are they “Alco-holidays”? In my work it has become obvious to me that families can have positive and negative rituals. As a matter of fact, in the addicted family these rituals can shift from positive to negative. Studies indicate that the more positive rituals are abandoned and destroyed in the addicted family the more likely it is that the family will become dysfunctional. Also, the more this occurs the more likely it is that the dysfunction will be passed to the next generation.

Addicted family rituals can be divided into four categories. The first category is the independent ritual, which is the positive ritual that a family attempts to maintain in spite of addiction. The second is the addicted ritual. This occurs when the addict is present and everyone abandons the positive ritual and begins to walk on eggshells. The third ritual is the co-dependent ritual, a ritual that has its origin in addicted rituals, but where the family has learned to behave the same as if the addict were present, even when she or he is not. The last category is the recovering ritual, which is the re-creation of lost positive rituals or the learning of new healthy ones. The key to recovering rituals is choice. It occurred to me while living in Michigan that the old tape in my head was playing the message that I learned in childhood: “Just once I would like to have Christmas the way people are supposed to.” This was challenged by a new message of “I can have any kind of Christmas I want, including complaining about the ones that I didn’t have or starting a new set of recovering rituals.” 

The emotional impact of addiction is not limited to what happened, but also includes what we missed. The question “What’s missing in my life?” is something that we can do something about.

I wish you a Happy Holiday Season.


Robert J. Ackerman



The Magazine for Addiction Professionals 

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Formerly Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. Dr. Ackerman is a co-founder of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and the Chair, Advisory Board of COUNSELOR: The Magazine for Addiction Professionals. He has published numerous articles and research findings and is best known for writing the first book in the United States on children of alcoholics. Twelve books later, many television appearances, and countless speaking engagements, he has become internationally known for his work with families and children of all ages. His books have been translated into thirteen languages.