Tea as a calming family ritual

The Psychology of Tea

Wouldn’t that make a great title for a novel? Maybe something set in Ireland…the ritual of tea-making, serving, and partaking cutting across generations and social classes?  Providing the fabric for a mystery to unfold with lots of subtle messages and clues. One day I will write that!

What is so psychologically powerful about the making, serving and drinking of tea? At Pocket Family Psychologist, we included it as one of our top 6 strategies to help parents anchor and hold steady in the middle of a parenting storm aka tantrum/argument/screaming match. We also use it in our therapy sessions.

Here’s why:

Ceremony and Ritual

There is so much wisdom and tradition around tea-making spanning cultures and generations. From the tea ceremonies of Japan and Turkey to the flasks of tea packed for construction workers. From the tea served from urns at support groups and meetings to the tea trolley in a hospital ward. Tea rituals symbolise beginnings, endings, safety, comfort and containment. Bad news, braving new relationships and difficult conversations become manageable through the ritual of tea.  

Personally, my little pot of jasmine tea gets me through my most difficult of reports.

In my therapeutic work with foster and adopted children, the making and serving of drinks is an important part of how we start many sessions and end others. We must do things in the same way and order each session. This ritual provides safety and predictability for children which in turn enables them to feel safe enough to engage and connect.

Best of all are the pretend tea parties with my mini-tea set. We do this when welcoming an emotion or thought that has previously been squashed down, such as anger or sadness. The ritual of the tea-making provides a structure to allow us to say difficult things such as “thank you anger for trying to protect Sarah from ever being bullied again, you have been fighting so hard for her”. Children take such care and pride as they serve the milk and sugar.

In more general family work, we are always in interested to learn what rituals and routines the family have in place to maintain or re-establish connection, comfort and containment.

Comfort and Care

The preparation and serving of a hot drink such as tea symbolises warmth, comfort and care. A psychology study demonstrated that people drinking a warm drink are perceived as more welcoming and trustworthy.

Think of the sweet tea that is served to someone in shock or recovering from an operation.

I will never forget the sugary tea and toast my mum made for me after a 20-hour labour with my first child. Mum and I normally drank coffee together. The tea meant I was in shock, needing extra care and was marking the beginning of my recovery.

Smell and taste

The smell and tastes of herbal teas can be an amazing psychological regulator. The process of drinking and the intense smell and tastes of herbal teas can quickly signal safety to your brain and physical system. Smells and tastes quickly reach the emotion centres and danger detection systems of our brain, long before conscious awareness. That is why a smell can trigger a flashback and panicked response for someone suffering with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) before they have any awareness that something has reminded them of their original trauma. Similarly, soothing smells can regulate someone who struggles to feel calm. I often use lavender, chamomile, peppermint (or any other smell that signals safety for someone) in trauma therapy sessions as a tool for the client to emotionally regulate before or after distressing work.

Finally, I sometimes use various tastes and textures as a way of helping an adult or child to begin to gently re-connect to their body, to notice the signals that they like or dislike something. In writing this blog, we collaborated with Small and Wild, a company who make herbal teas for children – their teas look amazing for this job! https://www.smallandwild.com/

Right, I’m off to have my peppermint tea and dark chocolate now – that is my cue to my brain that work has ended and I can relax.

Dr Andrea Shortland is a clinical and forensic psychologist at Pocket Family Psychologist. Andrea works with children, adult and families experiencing difficulties with anxiety and trauma.

Get Pocket Family Psychologist’s Guide to Understanding Child Anxiety here

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