Editor's Note: This story contains an honest talk about Santa Claus. Parents, use caution when scrolling if little (believing) eyes are present.
Cristina Wecker was caught off guard several years ago when, after a shopping trip to Target, her then 3-year-old daughter, Ryleigh asked, "Mommy, Santa isn't real, is he?"
Since Wecker's husband hadn't grown up in a house that "did the whole Santa thing," the Pittsburgh, Pa. couple agreed they'd make Santa-related Christmas magic for their daughter only until she began asking questions. Once Ryleigh wanted the truth, however, Wecker had promised they'd be completely honest.
"My heart broke and my mind started racing on how to handle the situation because I thought I had more time," Wecker tells Yahoo Life. "I was honest with her and told her that, yes, it was Daddy and me, but that people like to pretend because it's a fun and magical part of Christmas."
Because her daughter was so young, Wecker says she also worried Ryleigh would tell other kids about her newly acquired knowledge.
"We talked about how some people still like to pretend and we shouldn't argue with them if they want to believe in Santa," Wecker recalls. "She pondered it all and was very wise for a 3-year-old. Then she said, 'OK, I'm still going to pretend I believe in him though because it's fun.'"
Today, Ryleigh, 8, has her turn to pretend: The Weckers have since had two more children, Dylan, 5, and Tyler, 2, both of whom still hold a firm belief in the man in red.
"She still hasn't spoiled it for any of her friends or siblings," Wecker shares. "Her cousins actually do the Elf on the Shelf and she plays along with that to help keep the magic alive. Our kids only get one present from Santa and Ryleigh now knows to make sure what she asks Santa for is the absolute best gift she wants to get ... and is within Santa's budget."
How to handle the Santa talk
Neha Navsaria, a professor and child psychologist at the Washington University School of Medicine and consultant for the Parent Lab parenting app, says while some kids take the realization that Santa isn't real in stride, it's also normal for kids to experience confusion, sadness, disappointment or even anger when they learn the truth.
"The first step for a parent before anything else is to connect with a child's thoughts and feelings," says Navsaria. "As a parent, it's a natural response to provide all the reasons why you went along with the story of Santa Claus and to want to solve the problem quickly. However, it's important to slow down, fight this urge to reason and problem solve and put yourself in your child's shoes."
"Think about it," she says. "Your child just found out something they thought was true their entire life —since they were born — is not true. That's a big deal and their parent was in on the whole thing."
Share your own experience
Kids may also worry about how the holidays will feel magical now that their belief in Santa has ended. Navsaria says parents can help by talking about other ways the holidays feel special, planning ways to give to others and having discussions about what Santa meant to your child.
Sharing your own experience with learning the truth about Santa could also help.
"A parent can also connect with their child by sharing how they found out Santa wasn't real and their emotions around that time," says Navsaria. "It can be a great point of modeling and connection when children hear that their parent went through a similar experience."
Build back trust by showing respect
When it comes to parents' worries that their child will lose trust in them, Navsaria says the Santa talk is a perfect time to lay some groundwork for the future.
"This will not be the only time where a child questions or does not fully trust a parent," Navsaria says. "Therefore, it's important parents use these conversations as an opportunity to become comfortable in understanding and validating their child's emotions and modeling healthy communication."
"The issue of trust does not completely depend on whether a parent told the truth about Santa, it also depends on how a parent responds to their child's reaction," she continues. "It is in these times where a parent should acknowledge, accept and respect their child's feelings: That is a crucial building block for trust."
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When Bianca LeRoux's daughter, Lily, learned the truth about Santa after catching her mom sneaking money under her pillow "from the Tooth Fairy," the Long Island, N.Y. mom of two was devastated.
"We both started to cry even before I started explaining," LeRoux recalls. "She was angry and sad, but I told her those were perfectly valid feelings when you find out something was untrue or a lie."
Later, after Lily became excited about the job of helping create holiday magic for her younger brother, she came to her mom to share some sweet insights.
"We were sitting just the two of us on my bed, and she said, 'Mama, I'm really sad that there isn't any real magic in the world, but you know what magic I believe in now? The magic of how much you love me. You made everything so special for me ... and the reindeer always left trails of glitter and you hate glitter! That's real love,'" says LeRoux. "We both laughed and I cried and I said, 'I do hate glitter.' That moment meant so much to me — to both of us, I think."
It's been several years since Suzanne Hayes, a mom of teens, had the Santa talk with her kids, but the Simsbury, Conn. mom says in the years since her children, now 11, 14 and 18, learned the truth about Santa, she's seen holiday magic in her home in other ways.
"You will watch your kids turn into young adults and compassionate adolescents who desperately don't want to ruin the secret for others," says Hayes. "There is something unpredictably magical about watching your kids grow and adjust and be resilient, wonderful, grateful humans, who go with the flow but find a way to keep the magic alive — whether they continue to sit on Santa's lap or they suddenly have a strong desire to donate to a toy drive. Things will be magically different because the holidays have a way of bringing out the best in people: Santa or no Santa."
Hayes points out one big perk to having a Santa-free household at the holidays: gratitude.
"The kids have a new understanding of the work that goes into it," Hayes shares. "And, I am not going to lie — I love getting the 'thank yous' on Christmas morning, too."
"It is just so much work — and I don't miss the amount of sleep I lost over the years trying to keep things fair or trying to find the money for the new phone or pair of sneakers," she says. "They are extremely grateful now and it's so nice to have that freedom and to hear the words 'thank you.' I guess I am not as selfless as Santa."
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