Keep Santa for children's mental health after 'the Grinch that was 2020', urges psychologist

Alexandra Thompson
·4-min read
Santa Claus with a protective mask on his face during New Year's Eve brings a Christmas gift for children. He wears his red suit and Santa's hat, but also a protective face mask during the corona virus outbreak
A psychologist has warned 2020 is not the year to tell children the truth about Father Christmas. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

A psychologist has urged parents to maintain the “vital tonic” of Father Christmas for the sake of children’s mental health.

Dr Chris Boyle from the University of Exeter is usually against lying to youngsters, even about Santa Claus, warning it can be psychologically damaging.

After all the challenges of 2020, however, the psychologist has cautioned learning Father Christmas is not real could cause little ones even more stress.

With research suggesting the pandemic may have lasting emotional consequences for some children, Dr Boyle believes keeping the “magic and hope” of Santa alive may compensate for “the Grinch that was 2020”.

Read more: Normal Christmas ‘not a good idea’

A sad girl, wearing a medical mask, looks through the window during home quarantine and self-Isolation. A child cannot go play outside.
Coronavirus restrictions have kept many youngsters indoors for the much of 2020. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

“The challenges we have faced this year will surely live with many children over their lifetimes,” said Dr Boyle.

“With all the magic and hope he brings, Father Christmas might be a vital tonic for the Grinch that was 2020.

“What worse horror than to bookend an already troubled year with the disclosure Santa is not real?”

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Early in the pandemic, experts warned the coronavirus outbreak could have a “profound” and “pervasive” impact on people’s mental health for some time.

In June, the charity The Children’s Trust reported the pandemic was causing some youngsters to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Watch: Londoners react to Christmas coronavirus rules

Parents often agonise about how to handle difficult questions regarding Father Christmas. Writing in the journal The Psychologist, Dr Boyle stressed 2020 is not the year to disclose the cold hard truth.

“The COVID Christmas of 2020 brings so much uncertainty and misery, there is an argument it has never been a greater time to indulge in the escapism of Santa,” he said.

“Christmas is a time of magic, where children believe in implausible things, including Santa.

“Adults and older children wish they could believe too. Who can blame them, especially in 2020?”

Dr Boyle is behind the Santa Survey, where more than 4,000 adults around the world have shared how they learnt Father Christmas is not real.

“My survey results reveal there are many ways where parents can expose the Santa myth by mistake,” he said.

“The main slip-up beset by parents is being caught in the act.”

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Common blunders include: “Dad was tipsy when setting out the presents and disturbed my sleep, so I heard him drop them”, “I caught my parents drinking and eating what we had put out for Santa and the reindeer” and even “I saw my mother kissing Father Christmas under his beard”.

Many children also asked how Santa could enter the house, with parents being unable to come up with a suitable explanation.

“I knew it was impossible for such a fat man to fit down the chimney,” said a US participant, who learnt there is no Father Christmas aged seven.

The penny dropped at just three years old for a participant from Germany, who said: “Grandpa’s house had a fireplace. It was turned on and when I woke up, the presents were there but no dead Santa.”

Amid the pandemic, Dr Boyle has urged parents to learn from these slip-ups.

“The survey results give me hope that parents could successfully navigate questions about Santa this year if they are aware of the main ways other parents have tripped up over the years; then we can all maintain the collective myth that is Santa Claus for one more season,” he said.

The results have further revealed some children recognise their parents’ handwriting on present labels or notice a gift that was unsuccessfully hidden around the house ended up in their stocking.

When it comes to keeping the magic of Christmas alive in 2020, Dr Boyle stressed parents should “have a strategy”, but added pretending there is a Santa Claus may be damaging at any other time.

“In usual years when events are more normal, they [parents] should be mindful explaining to a child that they are correct and that Santa does not exist,” he said.

“This could prevent shame and embarrassment for a child when they do finally discover the truth.

“Parents need to understand the potential trauma they could cause when they choose to perpetrate a lie.”

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