Surviving Santa: How to Manage Your Toddler's Fear

What to do when this holiday tradition goes wrong.

Little boy with Santa
Credit: Steve Debenport

The holidays are a time for tradition, and for families that celebrate Christmas, visiting Santa is an all-time favorite. But just because you want to capture that perfect picture of your sitting child on Santa's lap doesn't mean your toddler is willing to cooperate. In fact, parents who try to convince a little one to make nice with Santa will often have a screaming toddler on their hands. 

But there is good news.

This common toddler reaction is not only normal, it also is a sign of a well-adjusted kid. 

"Toddlers often demonstrate 'stranger suspicion,' which is both developmentally typical and actually healthy. This is a sign that they've developed a healthy bond with the parents and this wariness is protective, preventing them from leaving with a stranger," said Teri Hull, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice and at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago who specializes in children and adolescents. 

According to Hull, toddlers do not have an understanding of Santa and what he represents to parents, which is often based on childhood memories and media. "So for [toddlers], he is simply a large man in a red suit that is not a parent," said Hull. 

Tamar Campbell, MS, who teaches child development at the high school level and is a professional face painter in the Chicago area, and Nicholas Pietrowski, MS, a senior lecturer in child psychology and early childhood education at Lesley University, both agree.

"Santas can be scary for toddlers. Toddlers are in the middle of stranger anxiety. Combine that with crowded holiday malls, and your meeting with Santa might be doomed before your little one gets near the guy in the red suit," said Campbell. 

So is it even possible to get that coveted photo with Santa?

Maybe. Here are a few tips from the experts to help you ease your toddler into a visit with Santa. 

Set expectations. 

Taking a pass on Santa isn't necessarily the right thing to do either. According to Hull, "I don't recommend skipping this tradition, as it sends the message that children should avoid situations that make them feel anxious." Instead, take time to help your child understand what to expect.

"Parents can have discussions about Santa prior to the visit to create a sense of excitement. They can read short stories with pictures about Santa to their toddlers prior to the visit. If you're bent on a great photo and your child has been struggling, multiple short visits to Santa may help," said Hull. 

Campbell also reminds parents to recognize that the tradition of Santa is fairly meaningless to a young child. "Walk the child through the process by explaining the steps. Say, 'First, we are going to stand in line, then you are going to sit with Santa, and then you'll smile for the camera, and we'll go home.' Repeat that refrain a few times prior to leaving the house so that your child knows the routine." 

Take it slow. 

Pushing your toddler to sit on Santa's lap can quickly turn into a full-on meltdown. Instead, choose a place where you can stand on the sidelines for a bit. "Allow your child to observe Santa from a distance. Sometimes seeing an older sibling or friend sit with Santa first can be helpful," said Hull.

You can also use your time in line to help reinforce the process and continue to set expectations. 

"Explain that children are not left alone with Santa," said Campbell. "Also explain that you are going to do the same thing when it's your child's turn... If at any point in the process your child starts to 'lose it' consider calling it a day and coming back at a different time when either your child is less tired or when the mall is emptier."

Seek out a seasoned Santa.

Parents often don't think about the experience level of a Santa, but a seasoned Santa can make a big difference in how your toddler reacts.  

"Some Santas have been in the profession for years. They are relaxed around children, and they can help you relax your nervous child. Other Santas donned the suit for the first time two hours before you visited the mall, and they don't have the job experience to know how to help," said Campbell.

Unfortunately, you can't always choose your Santa. To hedge your bets, try asking other parents for recommendations about locations where they had a good experience. 

Don't punish your toddler for being scared. 

Most importantly, don't push or punish children for feeling scared of Santa. 

"Avoid saying things like, 'Stop it, you're being silly, just sit on his lap'" or "You won't get any toys if you don't see him." Instead, phrases like, "It's okay, you will get used to Santa, we can just look at him for now" are more productive in the long run," said Hull. 

Know when to let it go.

While there's value in making sure a tradition continues and that a child knows that he can manage an anxiety-producing situation, sometimes, it's better to wait another year. 

"I also think you need to ask yourself the question, 'Am I willing to put my child through this anxiety producing situation for a picture?' For the anxious child taking a picture with Santa is not about the keepsake you show to your family and friends. To the anxious child meeting Santa is it is about being forced to sit with a scary stranger. In the child’s mind there is no difference between Santa and all those other strangers, said Pietrowski. 

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