Psychologists believe that he frightens young children because of his ability to judge them as naughty or nice.
Photo via Flickr user Richard Elzey
Christmas seems like a happy time of year for children. Their parents may tell them Santa Claus will bring them sacks-worth of toys, but many kids fear Old Saint Nick. Santaphobia affects countless kids, because they hold deep suspicions about the mystical character.
As a child, I stood somewhere on the spectrum of "suspicious" and "deeply afraid" of Santa Claus. The idea of a fat, bearded stranger entering my house through our chimney disturbed me. One time, I even requested that Santa leave my toys in the garage for my parents to retrieve on Christmas morning, but my father negotiated that he would let Santa in the front door and supervise him as he distributed toys. (I agreed and also allowed my father to shake Santa's hand.)
According to Mercedes Samudio, a licensed clinical social worker and parent coach, this type of behavior is normal for young kids. She says, "Children are developing their sense of reality during the age that many parents begin to expose them to the idea of Santa Claus, which means that while the child is excited about the possibility of a character that will bring them their most wanted toys, they are anxious because this same character has the ability to see what they do and judge them."
Samudio believes children get stressed over the concept of an omniscient figure judging them. "This lack of control is difficult for children to understand, especially since children do not develop the understanding of abstract concepts like locus of control and the difference between real and fantasy until they are older," she says. "By that time, they are not longer interested in Santa Claus."
Even if a kid accepts Santa, she or he may panic about the bearded icon in certain situations. "I would always leave out cookies and milk for him, [but] when it came to meeting him in person, I couldn't handle it," says Jane, a 25-year-old former Santaphobe. "I think there was too much pressure. There's a lot of attention on you by adults, lots of ooh-ing, and aww-ing, and taking photos. I think I got overwhelmed. As a naturally shy kid, it was too much to handle. I would start crying and clinging to my dad, usually burrowing into his neck, so we have lots of pictures of that."
The Internet is filled with galleries of children sobbing during Santa photo ops. Samudio thinks parents often underestimate the amount of anxiety even the youngest kid could experience about Christmas. "The holidays, especially in the US, are brought with stress as families attempt to meet all the demands of family time, gift buying, dinner preparations, and school holidays," she says. "Families spend a lot more time together, but that time is usually spent preparing for one to two days out of the month. I feel that the main source of stress comes from the disrupted routines and the chaos that the holidays bring. Adults often feel that children are enjoying the holidays and all the traditions without stopping to really check in with the child to see how they are handling all the chaos."
Children associate holiday stress with Santa Claus, the be-all, end-all figure of the Christmas. And fears around Santa can continue as kids age. A 26-year-old named Mike remembers that he once dusted his parents' chimney for Santa's fingerprints, trying to see if Santa had actually appeared. "I knew there was a debate as to whether he was real, and I wanted to prove the answer definitively," he recalls. "My mom told me that she didn't think it was going to work, but instead of taking the hint, I was like, 'So that's why he wears gloves!'"
Samudio sees this kind of behavior as indicative of normal childhood development. "It's natural and a good indicator that your child is not easily lead," she says. "Adults create all this whimsy around this character—the reindeers, the world-traveling in one night, Santa's omniscient omnipresence—and then tell children that they can't see him. It's bound to create a 'forbidden fruit' aura around Santa."
Good news for parents who are dealing with Santaphobic children: Curbing their fears is easy. "You can ask your child what they think about Santa and if they would like to meet him," Samudio says. " If your child is excited to meet him, great! But let them know that they can always change their mind if, when the time comes, they are worried or frightened. The worse thing to do when a child is frightened is [to] try to impose our adult understanding of the object on them. Giving them an out lets them have some control over what happens to them and leaves space for them to explore that fear later on with you." Preoccupation around Santa can lead parents to have healthy, formative discussions with their children. Samudio encourages parents to be receptive to their children's suspicions and not dismiss their worries to keep their belief in Santa Claus alive.
"It's about creating a safe space, which is more important than maintaining the false idolization of a character," she says. "This teaches your child that they can be curious about what's going on in their environment, and that their curiosity will be met with honesty and not dismissed. These moments will set a healthy foundation for your child to question and be curious as she matures, which is a skill that you definitely want your child to have."