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Santa brings joy, but he can also cause stress

For many families, having their child’s picture taken with Santa Claus is a holiday tradition. The jolly old elf makes himself available at shopping centers and stores, and folks line up for their turn.

Some young kids are thrilled by the chance to share their Christmas wish list with him, but for others, Santa is a scary dude. Being handed over to him, away from the comfort of a parent, can turn an Instagram moment into a freak out.

More and more, such set-ups involve side-by-side chairs or benches instead of Santa’s lap, and that can reduce some of the situational stress for little ones. And that is what’s behind the big emotions that some young children display with Santa — stress.

Stranger Distress

The stress young children may feel around Santa or other strangers is perfectly normal. It’s related to the emotional attachment they form with their parents or primary caregivers. They naturally want to stay close to the ones who meet their needs and make them feel safe and secure.

“I hate the terms stranger anxiety and separation anxiety,” says Dr. Tracy Spinrad, who teaches infant and toddler development at Arizona State University, “because anxiety implies pathology, that something is abnormal. I prefer to call it distress or stranger wariness.”

Children may begin to show signs of distress around strangers, or when a trusted caregiver leaves the room, around crawling age, usually between 7 and 10 months. But not in all babies. Some babies are naturally more easy going, while others are more prone to experiencing stress from new things, places and people.

“Stranger distress can last quite a while, usually through age 2 or more,” says Dr. Spinrad, “but these reactions are temporary and can even provide an opportunity for parents to teach their young children regulation skills.”

Tips for Meeting Santa

  • Stay close.
  • Age matters, so you should probably have different expectations with a 12 month-old than with a 3- or 4-year old.
  • Think ahead about how you’ll respond in the moment if your baby flips out. Are you okay if they’re not smiling in the photo?
  • For older children, it can help to talk with them about the visit beforehand so they know what will happen and what to expect.
  • Keep in mind that a little stress is okay for your child, and that how your child reacts to strangers, like Santa, is not a reflection on your parenting. It’s more a sign of their age, maturation and natural temperament.

Updated from December 2021

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