Why Kids Cry When They Meet Santa

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Stand in line in any mall where there’s a Santa’s lap at-the-ready and, chances are, more than one child will start bawling.

More than likely, your child is melting down due to stranger anxiety, something that some kids experience more than others. “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,” Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Parenting. “In addition, sitting on a lap is close proximity and doesn’t allow a frightened child to observe first and slowly get comfortable, so she may get overwhelmed with fear.”

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Add to it that you’d never leave your child on any other strange man’s lap as well as the fact that Santa’s beard and hat cover so much of his face and you have a recipe for disaster.

“Faces are cues for children to judge a person’s emotional state, too,” Dr. Saltz says. “Your child can’t read if he’s angry, upset or what?”

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To further prompt Santa stress, kids aren’t developmentally able to separate fantasy from reality from around 15 months to age seven, Ari Brown, MD, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and founder of 411 Pediatrics, tells Yahoo Parenting. “During this time period, kids can have some pretty significant fears of monsters as well as what most adults would consider benign figures like Santa or Mickey Mouse.”

So what’s a parent to do if a child freaks out at the sight of Santa? Never force him or her to tough it out. “This will only increase the likelihood that your child will see the event as horrendous and overwhelming,” Dr. Saltz says. “Instead, take your child off Santa’s lap and move towards the periphery of the room, allowing your child to watch Santa and watch other kids getting on his lap and see the safety of the situation.”

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If your child calms down, try walking a little closer and observing Santa. “The point is to slowly desensitize your child in a way that pushes her just a little bit but doesn’t overwhelm or panic her,” Dr. Saltz adds. “If she has stopped crying, ask her if she wants to get on line and try it again. If she doesn’t to, don’t force it.”

Your best bet: Prepare for Christmas by exposing your child to Santa in books, pictures and cartoons. “You can even have dad dress up as Santa to see that it’s really okay,” Dr. Saltz says. “A few kids may remain afraid and that’s okay. Keep in mind that there are adults who fear clowns and dress-up characters, including Santa.”

And rest easy, moms and dads: Sitting on Santa’s lap won’t mean the difference between a merry Christmas and a non-merry one. “A live Santa experience is certainly not necessary in order to enjoy the magic of the holidays,” Dr. Saltz says.