My kid is afraid of Santa, now what?
It’s the holiday season, and Santa Claus can pretty much be found everywhere.
Many have seen the photos and videos of frightened or angry children rebelling against a chance to sit on Santa’s lap, but should parents force their kids to face their fears at least long enough to snap a photo for Instagram, or are they causing harm to their mental health by forcing the issue?
Dr. Valeria Nanclares, manager of the Autism Treatment Program at the Pediatric Developmental Center at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, weighs in on this perennial issue.
Q. When children are really resistant, afraid or crying, should parents just go ahead and push their child to sit on Santa’s lap?
A. I would start off by asking, “Is it worth it?” If the child is generally a shy and anxious child, then it may not be worth the angst it causes. The end result is a screaming or crying child sitting on Santa’s lap, a picture you may not wish to share for the holidays. That said, if it means a lot to the parent, then preparing for the event can start weeks in advance. Consider reading books about Santa, maybe using some costumes or fake beards, reading holiday stories or watching holiday movies where he’s featured. These steps will help familiarize your child with the holiday character.
Q. What are the risks to a child’s mental and emotional health if mom or dad makes them sit with Santa? Could there be long-term issues?
A. As with any stressor, too much can be harmful. If the child is truly afraid, to force them to sit with Santa will not eliminate that fear. Rather, it may get even worse. I don’t know of any cases of children who have been scarred for life, but the uncomfortable moment can cause some challenges with separation from the parent in the future if the child has been traumatized by the experience, especially for very young children.
Q. How does the child’s age factor into this?
A. The younger the child, the more mysterious and often unsettling sitting on Santa’s lap can be. It’s a stranger who is dressed oddly and has a huge white beard. It’s not something we typically see out on the street. An older child will have seen Santa images, maybe read books or done school projects, so they may be able to think about and react to Santa in a different way. The younger child may be more prone to feel fear.
Q. What advice do you have for parents in this predicament?
A. The most important piece of advice is to evaluate your child. How does he or she approach new situations? How is your child with strangers? Does it take him or her a bit to warm up to new people? If he or she is slow to warm up or shy around strangers, then meeting Santa may not be the best holiday experience and should be skipped. I don’t think it helps anyone to have a picture of a distressed child with Santa.
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