Now that Christmas is behind us, let’s have a chat about the Elf on the Shelf and Santa’s Naughty and Nice list. I avoided writing this blog during the Christmas season. The last thing parents need is any more guilt, and I knew the only way this article would be processed during the Christmas season would be through a lens of guilt. So, before I even begin, let’s agree that the past is the past, and guilt helps no one. What does help? Information! That is what I am here to share with you.
One of the most commonly searched phrases of parents online in our area is “behavioral therapy in Florida.” Parents from all walks of life are looking everywhere for resources and answers to explain why their child who once used to be compliant and agreeable now screams “No!” at every turn, cries too easily, has anger outbursts, and/or turns the simplest of interactions into a battle or struggle. Some parents complain that their child used to do things by him or herself, but now the child demands help for nearly everything—getting dressed, eating, or even on the toilet!
I’m now going to share with you the number one reason that children exhibit behaviors such as tantrums, defiance, aggression, and excessive dependence (just to name a few of the main behavior problems parents complain about most). This reason has everything to do with how children perceive themselves. The bottom line is: when a child feels some degree of control, competent, and capable, there will not be many, if any, behavioral challenges. Conversely, when a child feels dependent on others and externally focused and incompetent, there will quite predictably be behavioral problems such as tantrums, defiance, refusal to complete tasks independently, and aggression, among others.
In child-centered play therapy, I work with children to help them discover or rediscover their own competency, and I frequently return responsibility to children so that they can discover the power that comes from taking accountability for their decisions and actions. I encourage rather than praise children, because I want them to be built up from the inside rather than becoming dependent on receiving external validation. All of these concepts work together cooperatively to help children become stronger, more resilient, little individuals.
Until Christmas rolls around, that is! Unfortunately, the relatively new Elf on the Shelf “custom” and even the age-old “naughty or nice” list that is often referenced around Christmas time are counter-productive to progress in play therapy. Why? Well, one goal in play therapy is to get children to stop constantly asking their parents and other adults, “Do you like it? Do you think it’s good?” every time they complete something like a drawing or picture. Children are healthiest when they complete something like a lego set or craft, look at it, and reflect upon what they think about it, what they like most about it, what they might do differently next time, what they like least about it, and so forth. Some children are so focused on external validation, they never think to reflect on their own thoughts, opinions, and feelings. This is a fragile place to be for a child, and the Elf on the Shelf exacerbates this fragility.
So, my advice to parents—especially those parents whose children are already struggling with behavioral problems— is to take this information and let it inform your actions from this point forward. If you love the Elf on the Shelf, then perhaps adapt the Elf in a way that builds your child up every day instead of encouraging dependence. For instance, the Elf could point to a game or hold a little sign each day to suggest a fun or unique activity (snowball or silly string battle outside!) for the family for each day. It’s your family; feel free to use this information and be creative! I wish you all the best.