Fear of Mr. Tayto and Santa

toddler-shyQUESTION: My three-year-old son becomes very frightened of big-headed characters such as Mickey Mouse or even Santa, who he would not approach last year. This can lead to him throwing big meltdowns, and we are not sure how to respond.

A few weeks ago we were at Tayto Park and he went ballistic at the sight of Mr Tayto. He would not settle, and even though we moved away from the character he kept saying he wanted to go home.

In the end we had to leave early without saying goodbye to our friends. He settled down once we left. Should we stick it out when he is fearful like this, or do we have to leave, even though this is really disruptive to the family?

Though Santa and My Tayto are meant to be fun characters for children, they frequently invoke anxiety in preschool children, especially when adults make a fuss or if there is pressure to engage with the character.

Also, while you can reason with an older child, it is hard to do this with a preschooler. Your question about whether you should leave the situation or stick it out when he is fearful is an important one, and the answer is: It depends.

If your son has become very distressed or overwhelmed by his anxiety, then it is probably best to leave as it will be too difficult to reassure him. In leaving, the key is to do this in a way that is least disruptive to the family.

For example, you might simply take a break and pull back from the situation and maybe go back later, when the character is gone; or one parent might take him out for a break and the other parent continue on the trip with the other children.

However, it is also sometimes best to help your son stick it out and learn to get through a bout of anxiety. This is especially the case in the early stages of an anxiety attack, when you have an opportunity to coach, reassure and distract him.

For example, you might notice him getting a little anxious with a character in the distance and you would then hold him close and say, “Look at Mr N in the distance; he looks funny.”

The key is to reassure your child that he won’t be pushed: “We will only go as close as you want to”; and to distract them with non-threatening details: “Look at his funny yellow head and his smiley eyes.”

A reassuring voice, holding him close and a lot of patience can also help.

It is also important to remember that childhood fears change quickly for preschool children. For example, though he is fearful of large-headed characters now, he could move on from this in a few months.

For this reason, it is sometimes best to anticipate and avoid the fearful situations in the short term and to try them gradually again in a few months.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, 2015.
John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.