The senseless slaughter of 20 innocent schoolchildren just 10 days before Christmas Eve has left a nation of parents weeping. We feel hopeless and helpless, and fear for the safety of our own kids.
But we aren’t helpless. That urge we feel to hug harder is not just primal, but powerfully effective. The comfort that we can give to our children — and ourselves — by clinging to our daily and holiday traditions is not transient.
No, we can’t promise there will never be another madman with a gun. But we can start to heal by using our traditions to celebrate the love and closeness we have now.
Psychological studies have shown that if regular rituals and celebrations can be continued during difficult times, they give children a lifeline to cling to even in the worst chaos and suffering. I’m not talking about specific rituals used by a community to heal together from atrocities, like when the survivors in Oklahoma City gathered by a tree that had survived the blast and together poured water over its roots. I’m suggesting that, especialllly for young children, the most important ritual is the regular bedtime story and hugs, and hanging the Christmas stockings and making cookies, and all those comforting, familiar rituals.
I read about a United Nations study of Bosnian children whose villages were bombed and their parents killed. So-called talking therapies did little to help these kids rebuild their psyches. But then authorities got the idea to help re-create some of the festivals and other rituals that had filled their childhoods, and for many, having that continuity to hang onto made it possible to go forward.
In this country, studies of families plagued by alcoholism also showed an outstanding result: in families where alcoholic parents managed to maintain such regular traditions as holiday rituals and birthday celebrations, their kids were less likely to become alcoholics themselves.
The policy issues about important questions like better mental health treatment and gun control must be addressed.
Bur right now, don’t just hug your children so tightly that they squirm, make sure you don’t neglect your daily your daily silly games and songs. Light candles and sing a hymn you all love each night. Gather around your Christmas tree before bedtime and talk about which ornaments tell the stories of your life together. Bake cookies, and share them with family and friends.
You have the power to do this every day. And now it means more than ever.