'Tis the season to be jolly, but come Christmas time, don't be surprised if your little one is anything but when it comes to being near Old Saint Nick. If your child is screaming his head off while you're trying to get a picture of him with Santa, he's not the only one -- many kids are afraid of the famous holiday icon. Here, experts explain why some kids are frightened and what you can do about it.
For adults, Santa might seem like a harmless symbol of all the joy and magic that Christmas brings. But a fear of Santa is common and normal among children, typically from ages 2 to 7 (though there are always exceptions). It's important to see things from your little one's perspective: He might be afraid of Santa for a myriad of reasons. Some kids don't like his white beard, his gloves, or his red suit. Others might be afraid of his odd vocabulary (Ho! Ho! Ho!) or the fact that he's an omnipresent entity that somehow always knows if he's been bad or good. And, of course, plenty of kids are fearful simply because they're expected to talk to a complete stranger and possibly sit on his lap. "Remember, little children haven't spent the last 30 years watching Miracle on 34th Street and waiting for Santa to leave presents on Christmas morning," says Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and author of the Baby 411 series. "This is a whole new ballgame for them. They might see Santa simply as a stranger in red."
Go at a Slow Pace
Don't make your child to talk to or interact with Santa. Instead, slowly help your little one become more comfortable being near him. "If you shield your child too much, you might prevent him from learning how to face his fears and eventually overcome them," says Stephen Garber, Ph.D., founder of The Behavioral Institute of Atlanta and author of Monsters Under the Bed and Other Childhood Fears. Dr. Garber suggests standing with your child at a distance and watching other kids who are comfortable approaching Santa. Seeing an older sibling, friend, or cousin might help mitigate your child's fear. Visit Santa a few times with your child and see if he gradually moves a little closer to him, waves from afar, or just says "Hi."
Don't Push or Punish
The worst thing you can do is force your child to sit on Santa's lap for a picture -- you might only make matters worse. "You'll not only likely wind up with a disappointing photo, but pushing the issue can potentially cause some psychological harm to your child," warns Andrew Adesman, M.D., chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medial Center of New York. "There might be emotional distress coupled with the implicit message that she cannot control with whom she is physically intimate." Rather than get into a power struggle with your child, respect her wishes. Rest assured that this is just a developmental phase your child will eventually outgrow. You can always try for a photo op next year.
Never punish a child or make her feel bad about her fear of Kris Kringle. Avoid put-downs or threats such as "Don't be silly. There's nothing to be afraid of" or "If you don't sit with Santa, you won't get any toys this year." Respect your child's fears, acknowledge that she's feeling anxious, and reassure her that she's safe, Dr. Garber says. Instead say, "It's okay. You'll get used to Santa. It just might take a little time." This sends the message that she will eventually overcome her fear.
Be Santa's Biggest Advocate
Get your child excited about Santa before the holiday season begins, so that she already feels like she knows him. Tell stories about the jolly man who brings presents to girls and boys around the world or share memories of what Santa meant to you as a kid. Watch age-appropriate movies that portray Santa in a positive light, such as the original Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, The Santa Clause, or Miracle on 34th Street. Read books such as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas or The Berenstain Bears Meet Santa Bear. And, of course, it can't hurt to suggest that your child write a "wish list" that you can send off to the North Pole.
Talk to Santa One-on-One
Be Santa's helper to help your child grow more accustomed to him. Have your spouse, a family member, or a trusted friend distract your child for a moment while you have a little chat with Santa. Explain your child's fears and offer suggestions on how he can reassure your little one. Tell him the name of your family pet or your child's favorite toy or activity so that he can bring it up in conversation. He can say something like, "Your mom told me you've been doing so well in soccer this year" or "Mommy said you have a dog named Barkley. Tell me about him."
Remember the Silver Lining
Chances are, your little one is afraid of Santa mostly because he's a stranger. This can be a great thing because it means your child has learned the concept of "stranger danger." "Stranger anxiety develops among some children as young as 6 months," Dr. Garber says. "This is a good developmental sign because it shows that a child has not only bonded to his parents, but he also recognizes the difference between people who are and aren't in the family." To avoid confusion, tell your child that it's all right for him to talk to Santa or sit on his lap as long as you or another trusted adult is around.
Don't Stop the Magic
If your child is afraid of Santa, you might feel inclined to tell him that Santa's not real, but experts warn against jumping the gun. "Although it may be tempting to try to reassure an anxious child by revealing the secret, this revelation may not be sufficient to quell his fears and it may also compromise future Santa-related Christmas magic," Dr. Adesman says. Of course, if your child seems to have excessively intense or irrational fears, talk to a doctor or child therapist about whether telling the truth might be appropriate in your case. Most children will outgrow their fear by age 7 -- but they might only have a few more years of believing in the magical.
Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.
Dina Roth Port is the author of Previvors: Facing the Breast Cancer Gene and Making Life-Changing Decisions. She has written for publications such as Glamour, Parenting, and The Huffington Post. Visit her website at www.dinarothport.com