Is it time for a therapeutic Santa?



Christmas can be stressful at the best of times.

From family politics to getting the arrangements sorted for a family celebration, it’s a full-on time for most families. For children, the excitement can reach fever pitch with kids being like coiled springs before the big day. Often the excitement co-exists with end of term tiredness and with the possibility of becoming seriously overwhelmed.

Alongside the magic of Christmas, we have traditions, which I feel need a little bit of a reboot. While watching a number of Christmas specials on Netflix with my daughter, I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve tutted under my breath as there have been references to Santa’s ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ lists.

As a parent to a child with early trauma, I try to be as therapeutic as I can in my parenting approach and response to behaviours. Sometimes this works out, but of course there are patches when it doesn’t – which is only human!

Behaviour is communication. Dysregulation and being overwhelmed, which are perfectly natural responses in a child to the heady mix of excitement and emotion at Christmas – can be particularly heightened for children with trauma triggers.

While we stay well away from ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ lists, these ideas creep in from their place collective festive traditions and through television. It’s time to lose these simplistic binaries, which serve only to create anxiety among children.

While some may argue that it’s harmless fun and part of childhood tradition, I believe it to be old fashioned. It’s a reflection of more traditional parenting approaches grounded in reward and punishment, rather than working with children therapeutically.

How about the elves?

In recent years, small beady eyed toy elves getting up to all kinds of mischief have been inescapable on social media. The ‘Elf on a shelf’ tradition, which isn’t really a tradition at all, but the product of a 2005 US book has become ubiquitous. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve laughed at some of the inspired scenes people have created with elves, but the premise makes me uncomfortable.

Essentially, they are Santa’s spies, checking up on kids and making sure they’ve been ‘nice’ ahead of Christmas. Again, this builds up unrealistic expectations and stigmatises children for getting dysregulated and doing something that might be perceived as ‘naughty’ as a result.

There are lots of ways that families may interpret and have fun with the ‘Elf on a Shelf’ idea. Personally however, I feel that the concept its heart leans into simplistic characterisations of behaviour that go against supporting children to genuinely understand their emotions.

Do it your way!

All families interpret stories and traditions differently. Santa has of course been discussed lots in our house recently but not his ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ lists. Elves have been mentioned, but they’re not sitting on shelves keeping a record of behaviour!

While these things are in a sense a bit of fun, I find it interesting how some of the more old fashioned and entrenched ideas about children’s behaviour and managing dysregulation seep through our festive traditions. Do it your way and go easy on yourselves!

Christmas can be overwhelming for parents and children alike. There are lots of things to enjoy, including the promise of Santa, but for me it’s time to bin the ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ lists.

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