It's hard not to giggle when we see children raising a big fuss while on Santa's lap. While many of us figure the child won't remember those few tears and the funny photo might provoke some laughs, experts say that may not be true at all.

Psychotherapist and parenting expert Andrea Nair says "Santa trauma," as she calls it, can be very real for many kids. While the moment may go by quickly, Nair says many children have nightmares long after. Other children learn to hate Santa Claus, or even develop aversions to all men with beards.

"Santa is often covered up, so we may only see his eyes. And if Daddy doesn't have facial hair and this is something new….," panic can set in, Nair explained to CTV's Canada AM Friday.

What many children have trouble dealing with, says Nair, is that they are being asked to sit close to a stranger they've never met, after their own parents have been teaching their children not to talk to strangers.

"Especially with toddlers, they might be in the separation-anxiety phase too. And so it's panic, panic, panic," Nair says. "The kid is going, 'Who is this person and why are you doing this to me and why are you walking away?'"

Kids are often wary of strangers just by instinct. That instinct is normally a good thing, as it's a sign they've bonded with their parents and don't want to be left with strangers, even for a second.

For older children, Santa Claus can also become a source of fear when parents overemphasize the idea that he's always watching and "knows when we've been bad or good." For some kids, that idea just instills anxiety, not good behaviour.

If you think your child is ready, Nair offers these three tips for trying to make the visit with Santa go smoothly.

  • Start by bringing out the Christmas stories to familiarize them with the "jolly old elf"
  • Show pictures of yourself or other members of your family sitting with Santa and having a nice time
  • Visit a mall beforehand to familiarize your child with the process. If there is a screaming child with Santa, that could be a teachable moment. Ask your child, “I wonder why they are having a tough time?” and show them there’s nothing to fear.

If it becomes clear that there's little chance your child is going to warm up to the big buy in red, it's best to skip the holiday photo until next year.

"Give them permission to back out if they really don't feel safe, or if they start to freak out, don't make them go," says Nair.

Finally, when talking to your child about Santa, it's best to tread the line carefully between revealing the hard truth and trying to preserve some of the magic of Santa. Whatever you do though, don't make up lies you can't get out of, Nair advises.

"Don't go somewhere that you can't recover from. Don't try to talk yourself into something and be really convincing," she says.

"Because when the child finds out otherwise, there's going to be trouble."