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If The Elf on The Shelf is Harmless, Why is My Toddler Terrified?

Elf on the shelf meaning

When the holidays roll around, so do the many traditions that can make them more festive and magical. Some of these traditions are relatively stress-free, such as putting up holiday decorations or trimming a tree. Others can be stressful not only for parents but also for young children, who may experience them as something to be feared instead of as harmless fun.

One of the more modern traditions is the “Elf on the Shelf” who is always watching children and reporting back to Santa to let him know if they have been “naughty.” Some parents believe that the Elf is a fun game for children, while others may think it’s an effective way to manage their children’s behavior in the runup to Christmas. But with the possibility of not receiving any gifts hanging over their heads, children may “behave,” but at what cost?

Instead of a fun-filled experience of living with the Elf in the weeks before Christmas, parents may find that their toddlers are fearful of the doll. If we step back and think about how young children may interpret the Elf, or even Santa Claus, it can give us insight into why some children are scared of these seemingly jolly holiday traditions.

The meaning behind the fear

As adults, if we were told that someone will be watching us throughout the day and then reporting on our behavior to an authority figure, we would definitely find that both creepy and stressful. Since young children aren’t able to think abstractly, this is how they may view the Elf and Santa Claus – as a real being who is watching them or who knows everything about them. Any efforts to explain that there is nothing to fear usually don’t work because young children don’t have the cognitive maturity to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

So, it’s helpful to recognize that when your child appears terrified, he is truly terrified, even if it is of a seemingly cheerful elf. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper say in Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, “Children do not fake fright and unhappiness. So, don’t hesitate to comfort them as you would if they had a skinned knee or a broken a toy. If they feel they can take refuge in the security of your arms when they are frightened, the fear will seem much less overwhelming. Refusing comfort only increases their fear by forcing them to cope with it alone. In addition, shaming children by calling them a “baby” only adds shame to the pain they already are experiencing.”

Although you may really want to incorporate the Elf into your holiday traditions and you’ve tried explaining that the Elf or Santa won’t hurt your child, if his fears do not diminish, it’s best to accept that he is not ready to embrace this tradition. Trying to force him to confront and conquer his fears will only lead to a power struggle, and strengthen the emotions that are driving those initial fears, which can prolong the time it takes for him to get over his fears and make him feel alienated and misunderstood.

Instead, try to emphasize in a positive way that someday he may feel differently but that, until then, you will try to shield him from experiences that scare him. In this way, your patience and understanding will not only help your son become less fearful, but will also bring the two of you closer together.

Parents’ Expectations vs. Children’s Reality

Beyond the fear a child might feel when confronted with the Elf sitting around the house “watching” her, is the added stress of being expected to “behave” a certain way in order to get a reward. When parents’ expectations of “well-behaved” young children do not align with what is developmentally appropriate behavior, it can cause much internal conflict in young children.

But the tears, meltdowns, and tantrums that may result from this internal conflict aren’t a sign of a “naughty” child. These behaviors are actually children’s way of saying that sitting still in church or not touching toys when shopping is all too much for them to handle and are normal and appropriate toddler expressions of unhappy feelings.

Using the Elf or Santa to control a child’s behavior can backfire for parents because the more stress she feels to please her parents, the unhappier she feels and, therefore, the more she may express her unhappiness in ways that are viewed as “unacceptable.” When parents respond to this “bad behavior” by reprimanding their child with “You better behave or the Elf will tell Santa and you won’t get the toys you want!”, this confuses her. She will interpret this as “my unhappy feelings are bad, so I must be bad.”

If parents are not able to acknowledge or accept a child’s unhappy feelings, it can have lasting effects for a child. She is likely to feel that her feelings are bad and should be put aside in order to please others. So, instead of being punished, she needs a big dose of understanding, patience, and a loving response. Doing so will show your child that you accept all of her feelings and will help you nurture your loving, safe relationship in which she feels comfortable coming to you when she needs help. In the long run, she will learn that the best way to deal with difficult emotions is to turn to a loving and caring friend or family member.

Of course, there are times when your child’s behavior needs to be managed, such as when there’s a possibility of hurting herself or others, or of being destructive, such as throwing Christmas ornaments. In these instances, parents can use what Smart Love calls “loving regulation” – stepping in and regulating your child’s behavior in a kind and caring manner without showing disapproval or using punishment. For example, you could say, “I know that it may be fun to throw ornaments, but the broken pieces can be sharp and could hurt if we touch them. I never want you to get hurt, so let’s see what else we can find to throw that is safe.” or “I see you are upset, but I can't let you throw the ornaments because I don't want you to get hurt. Can you tell me about your upset feelings?”

The best way to avoid the drama surrounding the Elf and/or Santa Claus is to let your child lead the way. If a holiday tradition is causing your child stress, a simple and effective solution is to adjust your expectations and find other ways to celebrate the holiday. Perhaps you can focus on other traditions, such as baking holiday cookies, making holiday crafts like ornaments, or building a gingerbread house.

Finding these less-stressful ways to celebrate the season will also help strengthen your relationship with your child. Spending time together will help them feel more connected to you and accepting all their emotions with patience and understanding will demonstrate that they can turn to you for support when they are overwhelmed. All of which can help make your holiday celebrations that much more peaceful.


Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.

Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2010.




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