Is Santa scaring the kids? UAB expert offers tips to calm children

Visiting jolly old Saint Nick for that prized photo of your kids on his lap can be fun, but if your children are apprehensive, one UAB psychologist has advice on how to help them.

As Christmas quickly approaches and last-minute mall trips are planned, there is a good chance parents have something else on the docket, too: pictures with Santa Claus. But if the sight of jolly old Saint Nick frightens your little ones, that picture may not happen.

University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) psychologist Christopher Robinson, Ph.D., has several tips to avoid a meltdown.

“Young children often see Santa Claus as a character in books, on television and in movies, but still he is a stranger to them,” Robinson said. “Around 1 to 2 years old, stranger and separation anxiety develop, and seeing Santa in person brings both of those out.”

On top of this, Robinson says that Santa is a celebrity to most kids, and to imagine how nervous anyone would be if they suddenly had to go talk to their favorite celebrities.

Robinson says these are very normal feelings for tiny tots to have, but there are ways to ease these feelings – starting before you even get in front of Santa.

“In a very concrete way, let the child know what to expect: Be excited as you tell them that they are going to get to meet Santa and sit in his lap. Talk with them about what they plan on asking him for, and mention how you would like to get a picture of both of them – and wouldn’t they also like that.”

“In a very concrete way, let the child know what to expect: Be excited as you tell them that they are going to get to meet Santa and sit in his lap,” Robinson explained. “Talk with them about what they plan on asking him for, and mention how you would like to get a picture of both of them – and wouldn’t they also like that.”

When you get to the visit with Santa, stand back and let your children watch as other children visit with him, Robinson added.

“If you normalize that it’s not going to be scary ahead of time, and if they can see other kids enjoying Santa, research suggests kids will understand that it’s an unthreatening situation,” Robinson said.

If you get up close to Kris Kringle and they are still showing anxiety, this is a good time to step aside again and watch a couple more kids visit, Robinson says, because “if they see other kids having fun, very often they will want to get in the middle of that fun and join in.”

Finally, parents should understand that sometimes the perfect picture with Santa is not going to happen. Robinson said to remember: There’s always next holiday season.

“Worst-case scenario is you don’t get that prized photo of your child sitting on Santa’s lap, and that’s ok,” Robinson said. “Children develop at different rates, and this may not be your year – but they may be more ready with the proper preparations next year.”

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