Andrea Loewen Nair: Connect-Four Parenting


Nightmares and Fights: The Dark Side to Elf on the Shelf

To Some Kids, This Elf Is No Gift

Elf on the shelf

Many of you have probably heard of a relatively new product called The Elf on the Shelf. According to the official website, it is being marketed as a Christmas tradition, where parents are to claim this toy is one of “Santa’s scout elves, who are sent to be Santa’s eyes and ears at children’s homes around the world!”

Parents are encouraged to hide the Elf around the house for their children to find each morning.  I have heard of parents using the elf to make messes in the house, blaming it on the elf, even vandalizing a child’s homework or art.

The most common use of this toy that I hear of, is that parents use it to coerce their children into “good behaviour” by threatening that the Elf will go back and tell Santa that child has done something to get him or her onto the naughty list.

It is not surprising to me that reports of nightmares and parent-child relationship breakdown are happening when the Elf comes into the house. This toy can certainly be used for fun, but unfortunately it is also causing some trouble in families.

Here are the reasons nightmares and fights are happening:

When a child feels (s)he is being watched all the time, even while sleeping, some children can go into a stressed state at bedtime. Children will often mention they don’t like their stuffies to watch them while they sleep, (my recommendation is that stuffed toys and characters in posters do not have eyes aimed at the bed).

Santa Trauma is a Real Phenomenon

The thought of an Elf who holds the power to nix Christmas presents having eyes on them at night is causing children to have nightmares. It’s like the child’s flight-or-flight system is getting stuck in the “on” position throughout the night.

Also, we all need space to make mistakes. If children are really sold the story that the Elf is real, and honestly do believe they are constantly being watched, that belief can put a child is distress.

We need space to decompress; to secretly eat something we’re not allowed to and to mistakenly knock something over, then quickly fix it before anyone notices. (I’m sure I’m not the only one who has snuck some chocolate into the bathroom to eat without the kid’s eyes watching.) We need to let our guard down without feeling something is going to tattle on every wrong move. Not being able to do so can wind us up too tightly.

Power struggles and fights among parents and children are happening with the Elf, as they usually do when a parent uses coercion to keep a child “in line.” Although the technique of threatening a punishment might temporarily stop a child from doing something a parent doesn’t want, it doesn’t grow a child’s ability to problem solve and choose behaviours that are helpful rather than harmful.

Threats grow a child’s defenses and anger, not their rational mind. When the holidays ended in the last few years, many children looked at the parents saying things like, “The Elf is gone; too bad. I’m not making my bed.”

Lying to Kids: Is There a Downside?

The other tricky aspect of the Elf is if the child so completely believes the toy is a real thing, and discovers it is actually a toy and his or her parent has been lying all along, their trust can be shaken. As I mentioned in this post about Santa Trauma (which is a real thing), parents need to consider how they position this story to their children—how far are they willing to go all in the name of holiday fun.

Here are my suggestions for reducing the negative parts of The Elf on the Shelf:

Make the bedrooms and bathrooms a no-Elf zone

In addition to those safe spaces, ask your child if there are any other places the Elf cannot go.

Instead of threats for bad behaviour, use the Elf to reinforce good behaviour

One way to help a child’s prefrontal cortex grow (the rational, friendly, cooperative part), is to use “I see you” statements. These are statements like, “Hey, I see you doing a really tough puzzle by yourself,” or “I saw your brother hit you and you didn’t hit him back. That must have taken a lot of strength. Thank you.”

These are encouragement phrases, where the parent simply comments without judgment when (s)he sees a child handling something tough very well. This grows the part of the brain that governs calm, rational thinking.

The Elf would be a great thing to use for “I see yous.” The Elf could leave a note in the morning with an “I see you” statement like, “I saw you set the table yesterday, I bet your mom liked that,” or “I see you taking good care of your dog.” If you are hiding the Elf, you can attach the note to its hand.

If something happens where the child goes into hysterics that (s)he has done something wrong and the Elf might tell Santa, ask your child what could be done to correct that mistake. For example, if a child hits a sibling, talk about using a calm-down plan in the future, and perhaps writing a note to the Elf to let him/ her know that the child realizes a mistake has been made, will correct it in the future, and is asking for forgiveness. This is a great opportunity to talk about the concept of forgiveness!

Establish your magic versus lying line

Holiday spirit is an important part of the season. It is possible to use fables and characters like Santa and the Elf to increase fun during this time of year. Please consider how you will position these story characters to keep the trust you and your child have grown intact.

As I mentioned above, some parents are using the toy to create messes and vandalize the children’s property. Gauge your children’s reaction to this—if they are upset, perhaps have them write a note to the Elf with wishes for that to stop. I would recommend not using the Elf to wreck possessions.

I have probably been swayed by the clients in my office who felt devastated when they found out Santa wasn’t real after being convinced by parents to believe so—for some a real rift in the relationship with parents happened. As a result, I have chosen to call Santa a story character and not use Elf on the Shelf. We have a more minimalist approach to the holidays, so the few gifts our children receive come from family members, not Santa.

I don’t believe that my children experience any less fun than those who believe the Santa and Elf on the Shelf stories as they are told. Our family has created traditions that we all enjoy very much, and my children are certainly not unhappy.

If you are looking for resources on positive parenting, I invite you over to my Facebook page where I post free parenting support. The community there is very supportive! I would also like to hear about your Santa and Elf on the Shelf stories, so please do post a comment below or on my Facebook page.

Happy Holidays from my family to yours!