For parents, bringing a kid to meet Santa Claus at a store or holiday gathering is Christmas tradition. The faux Santa is the living embodiment of the season, as well as a reminder that presents are incoming. Yet a number of kids respond to this encounter by bursting into tears. You’d think Santa’s lap was a dentist’s chair. So what’s going on?
According to psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, who spoke to Yahoo News on the subject, there are a number of reasons a child may have a negative response to meeting Santa. While kids are usually familiar with Santa’s typical presentation—red suit, bushy beard, jovial disposition—seeing him in person is another matter entirely.
“Santa is not only a stranger, he’s speaking in a deep ‘ho ho ho’ voice and he’s dressed unlike anyone else, which makes him even ‘stranger’ to your child,” Saltz said.
The other issue is proximity. Because kids get plopped on Santa’s lap without much of an introduction, they’re unable to ease their way into the situation. Put a kid into any stranger’s lap and they’re likely to get upset; sit them with someone as unique as Santa and they’re going to be perturbed.
Saltz added that the beard does Santa no favors, either. Kids pick up on facial cues, so having something that obscures expressions can be upsetting.
Child development experts believe kids are most apprehensive over strangers—and thus Santa—between the ages of 8 months and 2 years. That doesn’t mean older kids won’t have a problem, just that they may be less likely to jump off Santa’s lap.
To reduce the chances of Santa-phobia, it’s best to hope for a long line to meet him. That way, a child can observe the situation and figure out that Santa is nothing to fear. Parents can also try remaining within sight of their child or holding their child’s hand while they interact with Santa, alleviating separation anxiety.
“Give the kids time to acclimate to Santa,” says Robert, a mall Santa who spoke with Mental Floss back in 2017. “The child is scared and crying and screaming because they don’t know who you’re handing them off to. Please don’t throw your kids to us.”
If a kid is fearful, it’s best to skip the visit and opt for another Santa-adjacent activity, like watching a holiday special or reading a book. With continued exposure, they might be willing to try again next year.
[h/t Yahoo News]