He is billed as a jolly ole’ guy that kids adore. He arrives once a year in his sleigh full of presents to deliver to children all over the world. Children whisper their Christmas wishes to him and we take thousands of photos with him. Santa Claus is one of the staples of Christmas traditions. Yet, for many children, a visit to Santa means tears and fears. What is it about Santa that makes his youngest admirers want to watch from afar?
When my youngest son was 2, we excitedly dressed him and his big brother in matching shirts and went off to the mall for a traditional photo with Santa. We read the books and sang the songs. He was over-the-moon excited to see Santa and tell him that, more than anything, he wanted a Lightning McQueen car for Christmas. When it came for the big moment though, he freaked out, started crying (OK screaming) and sailed back off of Santa’s lap and into my arms. Looking back, there were signs this might not go well, signs to which we had not paid attention. He screamed when Tigger visited our table at Disney, and he wanted nothing to do with Albert at Gator functions. My older two loved these characters, so I did not understand what was going on.
Simply put, this fear is a phobia common among children under 5, sometimes even coined “Santaphobia.” The reasons why vary from simple stranger anxiety for young toddlers to a more involved development of children’s sense of reality in preschool aged children. When your child does not even want to let Grandma hold him because he is attached to mom’s hip, it should come as no surprise when does not want to sit on a stranger’s lap at the mall. And if suddenly a beloved character seemingly comes to life and does not look (or sound) exactly like a child thinks they should, the child’s perception of what is “real” may be threatened. “We teach our children to associate Santa Claus as being magical, so when they are confronted with him in real life, anxiety can be created over the inability to reconcile the images they have created of him in their head,” Tricia Rispoli, licensed mental health counselor, said.
Rispoli said that another common reason some children fear meeting Santa is because they may feel shame. “We use Santa to motivate our children to behave, because ‘Santa always knows when you’re good and bad!’” she said. “Most kids can handle that message, but others internalize it and it can create a feeling of not being good enough.”
The best advice is to respect your children and follow their cues. We are the ones who teach them from day one about stranger danger; we cannot undo that in a day just because we want a cute picture. Do not force them to visit Santa, do not laugh at them for being scared and definitely do not punish them for not cooperating. That will not “cure their fear.” It will only make them feel worse and might damage their trust in you as well. Instead, offer to go with your child or have an older sibling go first so that your child knows it is OK. Comfort your child if he does get scared. As with most things involving young children, familiarity and consistency helps quell fears. Our family visits the same Santa every year in a familiar environment. Although my children understand that Santa has many helpers, they are sure that the Santa they visit at our church’s party each year is in the fact the Real Santa.