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After a year full of change, you'd like to think your kids will feel nothing but excitement about Christmas. But for some little ones, the anxieties around social distancing, increased hand washing, and mask wearing might present themselves in a new way: With questions—or worries—about whether it's safe for Santa to come into the house on Christmas Eve. While you'll want to tailor your answers to your child's age and personality, the key at any stage is making them feel heard and respected.
"There's no right or wrong way on this particular issue, but the way that's going to make your child feel the most secure is if you listen, and really engage with them instead of invalidating what they're bringing up," says Dr. Heather Bernstein, a psychologist in the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. "And the more information you have, the better able you're going to be to come up with an appropriate plan. Parents are pretty creative in the ways they can create magic for their kids, so I think you just want to read your kid, listen to the things they are saying, and match where they're at." Ahead, how to respond to your children if they're asking tough questions about Santa this year.
While soothing worries about something you know isn't really an issue might feel unnecessary, it's important to take your child seriously when they come to you with their concerns. "For them, Santa is just one more piece of the world," says Dr. Bernstein. "He exists as much as the mailman exists, if the kid really believes in it." While some kids might be asking for details with no deeper agenda—the same way they ask what elves eat for dinner or where Santa goes in August—others might be projecting their fears of themselves or their family and friends getting sick. "You would want to follow that train of thought," she adds. "If they're worried about a magical figure coming into the house and possibly getting them sick, the likelihood that they're also worried about people who actually exist in their lives on daily basis getting them sick is probably there, too."
And while it's hard for experts to say how common this fear might be this year—since, after all, Santa has never visited during a pandemic—questions like this aren't necessarily a cause for concern. "If it seems like the worry is about Santa, especially as holidays are approaching, that's something one would expect of a young child trying to makes sense of a situation that's really hard to grasp," says Dr. Yesenia Marroquin, psychologist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Make a plan.
For many kids, creating a hands-on plan for dealing with their worries will be enough to soothe their anxiety. "You don't want to invalidate what they're bringing up to you—this is just as real as you and me," says Dr. Bernstein. Ask for their ideas of ways they can help keep Santa (and themselves) safe: Putting hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes by the milk and cookies; offering a packaged snack instead of homemade; writing Santa a letter asking if he has a mask; leaving a note requesting that he drop the presents on the porch. "That doesn't necessarily reinforce worry," says Dr. Marroquin. "It's a proactive step that we would recommend for anyone in terms of ensuring family safety."
Consider telling the truth.
Only you, as a parent or caregiver, know if your child's health concerns warrant a clear conversation about the real magic of Christmas. "Sometimes magic is the answer: He's in the North Pole, all the data suggests that the coronavirus isn't in the North Pole, we are good. That will be super appropriate for a lot of kids," says Dr. Bernstein. "The kids who are really excited about these magical components of the holidays are already suspending reality to some degree. They're already engaging in a piece of magical thinking."
But if your child is a more critical thinker who can't stop asking careful, detail-oriented questions, then answers that don't make sense to them might cause more trouble. "Can you come up with a really elaborate story? Absolutely. Is that going to land on every kid? No," says Dr. Bernstein. "If they're so worried about it and they don't need to be, certainly perpetuating that is going to cause everybody more anxiety." The key, say Dr. Bernstein and Dr. Marroquin, is to make sure you aren't keeping up the myth just for yourself. "As tough as it is, don't prolong the belief in Santa Claus for your own benefit as a parent," says Dr. Marroquin. "When your child is ready, your child is ready."