Santaphobia: How To Manage Children Scared of Father Christmas
8 min read
Last Modified 20 November 2023 First Added 3 November 2020
For most kids, December is a month of excitement, filled with friendly reindeer, happy elves, and the promise of presents for good behaviour. But for a select few, this most exciting time of the year comes with a catch: Santaphobia – the fear of Santa Claus.
You may notice that many children, especially little ones under five, don’t react positively when seeing Santa. While we adults know he’s a jolly symbol of festive fun, sometimes that doesn’t translate for kids…
It’s not uncommon for children to suffer from Santaphobia. After all, Santa Claus is a strange, unknown man dressed in red who breaks into their house via the chimney. Add in the fact he’s known for watching their behaviour all year round, and it’s quite understandable why some kids are scared of old St Nicholas.
Here, we explore some of the reasons why:
Speaking with Pyschologies.co.uk, Emma Citron identifies how many kids come into contact with several different Santas in December. In school, St Nick may have had a Yorkshire accent and stood around 5 ft 6 tall.
Then, at the weekend, your child may have come across a Santa who’s much taller with a different accent. How they process this is unknown, and there’s a fear that this lack of consistency may make a trip to see the big guy a little overwhelming. Citron states:
“It’s not known how children reconcile these differences in their own mind … It’s possible that they have some inkling that Santa isn’t real, but don’t want to stop believing in the magic.”
Another reason your little one may have a fear of Santa Claus is because of how important he is. With so much riding on the big man’s opinion of us, it’s not surprising his appearance comes with some added pressure. Emma Citron reminds us that with more talk about Santa comes more judgment over behaviour throughout the year.
“He has taken on a god-like presence in our lives, looming so large over all our Christmas celebrations. Coming face to face with the man on whom you have pinned so many hopes can evoke such strong emotions, that the experience becomes completely overwhelming.”
Often, a Santa meet-and-greet is a very public affair. For lots of kids, especially shy, anxious, or neurodivergent ones, this can be a nightmare. With so many people watching and the expectation to have fun, it can become too much to handle.
It also is a fairly stressful time for adults, and these negative feelings don’t go unnoticed by children. If you’re annoyed or frustrated when taking them out, they’ll make bad associations with the trip, and it will cause them to stress as well.
For most of the year, parents are giving advice to their children about staying away from strangers and using common sense. Come Christmas, that kind of goes out the window and the rules all change.
This lack of consistency can be a little off-putting for our youngsters. As parents, we’re one of the biggest authorities in our children’s lives, and a lack of consistency can send confusing signals. Look at this post on the importance of consistency in parenting for more information.
What’s more, Mandy Seyfang, from the Department of Education and Childhood Development in Australia, identified how Santaphobia may actually be a sign of developed emotional intelligence. At all other times of the year, we promote a healthy awareness and mistrust of strangers.
But when it comes to Christmas, we expect our children to accept this strange red man wholeheartedly and without doubt. Logically speaking, the fear of Santa Claus is a sign your children have developed emotional intelligence and the ability to judge a scenario for its trustworthiness.
The uncanny valley effect is the term given to the sense of unease we have around things that look human but are not quite right. Usually, adults get this with humanoid robots and computer-generated images, particularly of people.
There is some evidence that young children also experience this. So, seeing someone in a costume with a fake beard and stuffed outfit can give them the impression he’s not quite real, even if they don’t know why.
Santaphobia is most common in children under four years old. In most cases, once children reach five years, they lose their fear and start to get wholly excited again.
As toddlers, our little ones are starting to feel emotions in completely different ways from what they’ve ever experienced. It’s a big part of what we label ‘the terrible twos’.
This new wave of emotions and fears is a healthy part of their development, but it’s not until around four years that they start to manage these fears. Here, most children start to use strategies to eliminate disturbing external stimuli. In other words, they cover their eyes when scared and plug their ears when they hear a loud noise.
Without this ability to manage their fears, they’ll likely let their worries get the better of them. Whether this presents as tantrums or tears is irrelevant; it simply means you need to help them.
While the fear of Santa Claus is normal and a common part of childhood development, it’s not something parents just have to grin and bear. Active involvement is key. Here, we’ll explore some ideas for helping your kid overcome their Santaphobia:
Time is nature’s greatest healer, and it can be applied to Santaphobia too. Alongside developed emotional intelligence, a big reason why children get over their fear of Santa Claus around four years of age is that they’ve experienced him before.
Introducing Santa a little earlier in the year may give your youngster a bit more time to prepare and ask questions about the big guy. If he’s only introduced when the magic and excitement are around, they may feel a little overwhelmed when it comes to asking questions.
It’s important to allow your children to feel comfortable presenting their fears and saying no to things they don’t like. This is a skill that even adults struggle with at times. If you’re worried that your youngster may be developing Santaphobia, tell them that the ball is in their court.
If a visit to a grotto is planned, listen to their worries and devise a plan to alleviate these. Remember, if they don’t want to participate, then don’t force them. Many parents think it’s best to overcome the fear by throwing their children in at the deep end. How often have you seen a crying child in the queue for the grotto or the wide eyes of fear when sitting on Santa’s lap?
While it may work for some, we wouldn’t recommend this approach as it creates more negative connotations with Santa Claus. Instead, allow your kids to experience the magic of Christmas in their way. In time, they’ll learn that this festive period is the most exciting part of the year.
There’s no reason to discount the existence of Santa Claus. Let your child figure this one out by themself. Instead, a simple awareness of your little one’s fears will suffice. Mostly because a fear of Santa is a normal phase of development for children.
In other words, don’t be tempted to give away the game. Instead, introduce coping mechanisms and give your little ones the space to feel scared of Santa. In time, with you at their side, they’ll come around to the idea.