Many of us bask in the fond memories we have of Christmas when we were children. As parents we naturally try to share and even build on those experiences with our own children. The decorations, fun and games, and family get-togethers are all part of the package. Plus, of course, leaving out a treat for Santa and his reindeer. This is great when it works — but children with anxiety don’t necessarily see things in the way adults might like.
Fear of Santa
You must have seen the children who sob or scream at being put on the lap of a stranger dressed up as Santa. Often they are simply too young to understand what is happening, but looked at from a child’s perspective their distress is understandable. Fear of Santa, especially in very young children, is actually quite common. Sometimes called Santaphobia, or Clausophobia, the suggestion is that children are displaying a level of fear disproportionate to the actual danger. I’m less certain about this. Is it disproportionate to react fearfully when a total stranger dressed in a bright red suit pulls you onto his lap and won’t let go? In any other context a parent might be grateful for such a reaction from their child. It would alert them to the fact that something out of the ordinary is happening that could be dangerous.
In terms of their development, very young children seek the reassurance of predictability. They haven’t yet grasped the difference between fantasy and reality. As adults we tend to view this as a magical time and we capitalize on it by spinning stories about flying reindeer, Christmas Elves and maybe even ghost stories. Some parents form associations between being good and gaining rewards in the form of presents. It’s a lot to take in. Still, handled with sensitivity, and in a home environment that is stable and loving, it seems harmless enough.
Anxiety and excitement
I mention sensitivity because of the obvious fact that not all children are alike. The idea that some bearded old man is wandering around the house in the middle of the night is quite terrifying for some children. Their sleepless night isn’t so much due to excitement as anxiety. Anxiety represents a heightened state of arousal that is uncomfortable to experience. Anxiety exists because it is a protective mechanism. There is nothing positive about anxiety because it’s all to do with fight-or-flight. It may cause children to become more fearful, clingy, tearful, and more questioning as to what may or may not be happening. Excitement is also a heightened state of arousal but the essential difference is that we become more energized and more willing to engage with the issues at hand. When we’re excited we think more creatively, we laugh more, and we’re generally very enthusiastic about what’s happening around us.
Learning to distinguish anxiety from excitement is a useful thing for parents. Around Christmastime some may need to cope with over-excitement. I recently heard a story about a little boy who burst into tears after opening all his presents. His mother wondered if she had missed something important, but it turned out she hadn’t. She picked him up, gave him a cuddle and asked what was wrong. “I don’t know,” he sobbed. These little emotional meltdowns sometimes occur after big build-ups or big changes in routine. A big cuddle and some breakfast can usually offer a cure, but it might be wise to ration the chocolates and do some calming activity.
Babbling impatience and hyper-activity generally calls for modest parental intervention in ways that will calm the situation. Sticking to established routines can be helpful. For example, if games have been played because it’s Christmas Eve, leave time for putting things away and, if it’s the normal routine, have a bath before bedtime.
More anxious children may need some direct reassurance. Ask them to give you a hug. If your child is very anxious and very agitated there may be a case for reassuring them that it’s all make-believe. You may worry that you’re bursting a bubble, but your child might then relax because you’ve let them in on the secret. Older kids know full well that Santa doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t stop them enjoying the stories, watching the movies, and getting a huge kick out of the Christmas season.
The ability to comfort children, whether the cause of distress is anxiety, autism, or some form of sensory processing disorder, is a skill that usually increases with time and practice — but being fully informed is a key component. Advice and support is always available from your local child psychologist.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.