Could Hanging Out with Santa Trigger Your Child?

by | Holidays and Celebrations, Parenting

What??? You’ve banned Santa??

Meh, keep your shorts on, folks. The magic of Christmas is still alive and we still like the mythical fat guy. One of the lessons we learned very early on in this gig of parenting traumatized kids, however, was that we have to do things our way in order to make them work for our family. Just because some traditions are fun for some kids doesn’t mean they will be for all of them! The whole legend of Santa Claus is one of those that proved to be way too much for my kids who struggle with Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Santa hasn’t been completely banned

Even though my kids are big now, Santa still comes to our house on Christmas Eve and he will for many years to come.  After all, he is the magic of Christmas! He just does so a little differently than he does other places…and he always has. Even before our boys joined our family via international adoption, we got tired of the fat guy getting all the credit for the cool stuff we did for our biological daughter. He started only bringing just one present per person several years before adoption was even an option for us. Everything else went under the tree from Mom and Dad.

The thing that was banned very early on for us, though, was taking our kids to visit Santa and allowing (aka forcing) them to sit on his lap. This is one of those things that is just simply too much for my kids. In fact, we realized it always had been.

As we looked back on things, we noticed we didn’t have any really cute pictures just of our daughter with Santa. We did take her to see him a couple of times when she was younger, but she looks way more scared than excited in every single picture. The first and only time we ever tried it with the boys was the first year we had them home and didn’t know any better. Let’s just say it didn’t go so well! They were completely overwhelmed and D.O.N.E with the whole mall thing long before it was our turn to see the man. When we did finally get up there, there wasn’t an ounce of cooperation left in those kids and they didn’t yet speak enough English for us to explain. They did readily gobble up his candy, though!

Should RAD kids sit on Santa’s Lap?

I’ve come to realize over the years the answer to that question is probably no. There are some pretty darn good reasons why, too. The whole experience violates the top three cardinal rules of keeping traumatized kids safe!

1.  Santa is a stranger who touches kids

Kind and loving as he may seem, the person playing Santa is an unfamiliar adult who touches children, shares secrets with them, and expects them to sit on his lap. Even if everything is on the up and up, consider carefully how an experience such as this could be perceived by a child with a trauma history…especially if that trauma they’ve experienced includes sexual abuse. I’m just sayin’.

2.  Santa wears a costume

As I explained in my Halloween Epiphany post, when people are wearing costumes, their true identity and character are disguised and my kids can no longer determine for themselves whether they are good guys or bad guys.

3.  Santa hands out treats

To this day, treats are the #1 know trauma trigger for my boys, especially when they come from random adults. Like many traumatized or attachment disordered kids, they love junk food and are drawn to it like flies to a cow pie. They know it makes them feel terrible, both physically and emotionally, but those sugary treats are like crack to them. Once it’s available, they just can’t resist it…and we usually pay for it later on!

We wouldn’t let our kids do that!

One of the biggest issues with Santa though is that most of us wouldn’t let our traumatized kids behave the way they do with Santa with anyone else. As many trauma moms know, allowing our little darlings to sit on anyone’s lap other than ours is asking for trouble…BIG trouble! Allowing them to do it past a certain age is asking for even more trouble.

At the very least, this kind of situation opens the door for our kids to be superficially charming and probably to lie as well. That never ends well for anyone. Plus, it also sets everyone up for disappointment and disaster come Christmas morning, especially if the kids can claim that Santa didn’t bring what he told them to. It just becomes one more thing to use against Mom and Dad.

What about when Santa shows up on surprise?

 This is one that drives me nuts. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why people think this is fun! I suppose there was a time in my life where it was, and there are places and events where it was definitely more appropriate than others. I’ve never understood, though, why Santa has to show up at every church party. Can’t we just do Jesus for Christmas?

From the time our kids were very little (and even when I was young myself), church holiday parties seem to be the main place for Santa to just “show up”. Our solution to this has always been very simple. We either just don’t go to the event or we leave early. When the kids were younger, if we knew there would be an appearance we often went just for the social and meal or until the kids were finished with their little performance. Then we quietly slipped out before Santa arrived without saying a word to anyone, including the kids. Most of the time they never knew they even missed anything.

 As our kids have gotten older, they think activities like this are boring anyway. They are quite content to not show up at all…for any of it. Their totally normal teen response makes me happy! They don’t always win, though. Sometimes they still get to go anyway. However, we’re all still happy to bolt for the door before all the little kids freak out when a fat guy in a red suit walked into the room.

Giving up the gig

Admittedly, we tried to keep the myth of Santa alive when our kids were young. Sometimes we went to great lengths to do it, too. It was fun with our daughter…but once our boys came home, it was a whole different story. I wish we would have known the real reason why the holidays triggered our kids so much a lot sooner than we did. It would have made those first few years a whole lot more peaceful!

 You see, there is a 4th reason why Santa doesn’t always mix well with trauma and attachment disorder.

4. Santa sneaks into the house at night

 About the time my youngest was in Kindergarten and 1st Grade, we noticed he reacted the same way to Santa that he did to the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Leprechauns. It was never just a little discomfort. It was a total freak out complete with a nuclear meltdown! 

 We were sick when we finally connected the dots and realized the real trigger behind all of this. Unfortunately, many kids affected by early childhood trauma were hurt by big people sneaking into what were supposed to be their safe spaces at night. The one thing all these mythical figures have in common is they sneak into the house at night. Even if they’re doing so for a good reason, they are still able to sneak into the house. Therefore, in their minds, it stands to reason that if Santa can get in, so can the bad guys. No wonder he was terrified!!

We’d seen it before…

Then we realized we had seen this same reaction in real life. A couple of years earlier when we were in the process of moving, we had a real estate agent come by to look at our house after the kids had gone to bed. We didn’t think anything of it. My kids all knew someone was coming and why he was there. They were all doing their part to “help out” with the move by going to bed so we could do the boring grown-up stuff.

 Yet when we quietly opened my son’s door to show this real estate agent the size of the room, we found my son wide awake. The look of sheer horror on his face was forever etched into my mind. Nothing happened. We were right there the whole time, and this guy never even stepped foot into his room. But my son was still paralyzed in fear…even though he has no conscious memory of anything bad ever happening to him.  

But they’re not even real!

It doesn’t matter if the mythical figures are real or not. Many of our kids struggle to distinguish fantasy from reality as it is. My son wasn’t any different. Until he knew the truth, his reaction to Santa was the same as it was to that real estate agent. The triggers are still very real. At least for my son, they proved to be way too big for him to manage.

 That was the end of the myth for us. It was also the beginning of much more enjoyable holiday seasons for everyone! The whole Santa gig absolutely wasn’t fun for this kid and nor was it worth trying to maintain the charade. We flat out told our son that Mom and Dad are Santa when he was six. Yup, we had to specifically spell out for him that no one sneaks into our house at night and that we’re the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and all other mythical figures as well.

We didn’t spoil the magic

 We didn’t spoil the magic of Santa for our kids. By understanding and meeting their needs and eliminating what wasn’t working, we allowed the magic of the holidays to start happening. Once our youngest and most dramatic kid knew the truth, he immediately relaxed and all the trauma drama that had previously come with the holidays significantly decreased as well.

 Yes, our kids (who aren’t kids at all anymore) still insist they have one traditional “Santa” present on Christmas morning. It still has to be wrapped in special Santa paper, too. They still hang their stockings and they write letters to Santa (which we love!) Sometimes they even still leave cookies and milk, just because it’s fun. When my husband and I get ready to put all the stuff out, we still rattle the jingle bells and announce that Santa is on the roof…and all they all still giggle.

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