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Q. My 3-year-old has a fear that's getting worse. It started out as a simple fear of Santa but now she is not only terrified of Santa, but anyone who looks remotely Santa-like. Plus, she runs away from the TV every time she sees a Christmas-related advertisement and screams at snowmen, reindeer, and even presents wrapped in holiday paper.
I've told myself she'll grow out of it, but I'd never forgive myself if there was something here that needed to be dealt with, and I ignored it, hoping it would go away. Any suggestions?
A. Most young children are afraid of Santa. He's a character dressing and looking much differently than anyone they've experienced. Then to be forced to sit on this strange person's lap, quickly turns most toddlers and some preschoolers fearful as they prepare for fight or flight. Unfortunately your child has now generalized her fear of Santa to most things Christmas-ish. At this point, making a therapy appointment probably isn't necessary even though her fear of snowmen, reindeer and Christmas presents seems a bit extreme.
How you respond when she screams with terror to anything Christmas related is key to her overcoming her fears. Realize that her fears won't completely subside this year, next year they will subside somewhat and then most likely completely disappear the Christmas she's five-years-old.
What follows are several approaches you can take to help your daughter overcome her fears.
1. Prepare her for the season. Set out in your home two or three small Christmas related objects. Include a little Santa Claus doll. Your daughter can approach these objects as she desires. Eventually she'll play with them. Through play children overcome their fears and misunderstandings of objects and events. When playing she's be in control rather than feeling out of control when bombarded with the overwhelming sights and sounds of the season.
2. Help her manage her fears. When your daughter becomes frightened of a Santa or a Christmas related object, simply hold her, but don't try to explain her fear away by saying. Be empathetic and let her know you understand what she's feeling.
Try saying something like, "I understand that you're afraid of Santa, that he scares you." Then explain that you're not afraid of Santa because you know he's a friendly person who gives children toys, and that he will not harm her. Let her see your confidence as you talk with her.
3. Avoid isolating her. Don't completely keep her from experiencing Christmas related events. If you're walking downtown and see a department store window decorated for the season, tell her it's coming up, hold her as she views the scene from a distance.
4. Get her involved in the spirit of the season. Let her help with wrapping packages, decorating, and baking. Offer these activities in little bits and pieces. When baking, ask her, "Would you like to make tree, Santa or star cookies?" By letting her choose, it puts her in charge which ultimately will help her manage her Christmas-related fears.
5. Make up a story. Start by saying, "Once upon a time there was a little girl who was frightened of Santa Claus." Elaborate on her particular fears and then end by saying, "One day, the little girl was no longer afraid of Santa. She still wouldn't sit on his lap, but she liked to look at him and think about the presents he would bring on Christmas morning. This little girl lived happily ever after."
Eventually your daughter will overcome her fear of all things Santa, but you'll need to have the patience to help her do it.