“Should kids believe in Santa?” is a hot topic in Iceland at the moment. On one hand, critics say that we are lying to our children, and it is wrong to teach them to believe in a fictitious man who defies the laws of nature. On the other hand, supporters say that believing in Santa is part of what makes Christmas so special for children, and who are we to take that away from them?

Some people remember the exact moment when they found out Santa wasn’t real. I suppose for others it is more of a gradual realisation. Last Christmas a cousin of mine told me that I was responsible for her learning the truth. Back when we were young, we were at a family party and got into an argument about Santa’s existence. I launched a scientific expedition, and made her follow me to the basement where we saw “Santa” go into a room, and an older family friend came out! I had forgotten this, but it was a vivid memory for her. For me, I do remember my older sister spilling the beans to me the previous year.

Is believing in Santa ridiculous? Should it be stopped? My answer is probably not. Here are three reasons why:


1. Most importantly, believing in Santa is a FUN for children, and I believe it is harmless fun.

In Iceland you get a present for each of the 13 days leading up to Christmas, everyone of which is left in a shoe by one of the mischievous Yule Lads. I love seeing how excited my nieces get about the Yule Lads.


2. Children’s minds work differently than adult’s minds.

When we are very young, we are wildly creative, and we are willing to believe the impossible at the drop of a hat. This is part of normal childhood development. I feel that discovering the truth about Santa can be an important opportunity to teach children about critical thinking. As they age, kids need to learn not to believe everything they are told, and learn methods of distinguishing truth from fiction. It can even be fun. For example, when my husband was young, he and his sister collected handwriting samples from all the adults in the house, and asked Santa to leave a note. On Christmas day th
ey set up a forensic lab to compare the handwriting samples! Instead of feeling lied to and betrayed, they enjoyed the process of discovery. (You won’t be surprised to hear that they both went on to careers in science and research.)

3. The Icelandic Yule Lads give parents a perfect opportunity to apply general behaviour principles on their kids.

Kids learn that positive behaviour (e.g. such as going to bed on time) can lead to a reward (e.g. a new toy in their shoe in the morning). One of my favourite books on the topic is called the Power of Reinforcement. It points out that instead of the “carrot and stick” approach, the “carrot, carrot and more carrot” can be best. Perhaps that’s why there are 13 Santas in Iceland?


Apparently a lot of mail directed to the “North Pole” ends up in this huge box in Greenland. If a little child has gone to the effort of writing a letter to Santa, I’d be the last person to break their little heart with the truth. I think my time would be better spent asking grown adults why they believe in things that are equally improbable.






Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of AI-Therapy.com, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety


Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important thing he had to say.   – Todd Dufresne on Sigmund Freud in a 2004 LA Times Article

Freud was strange. On one hand, he’s the most famous therapist in history, and I have to admit I was excited to visit his former clinic on vacation in Vienna last year:

Fjola at Freud Museum


On the other hand, his theories are at best unsupported by evidence, sometimes completely ridiculous (I’m looking at you, penis envy), and at worst harmful.

Freud invented a form of psychological treatment called psychoanalysis. One of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis is that our personalities are strongly dependent on events in our early childhood. Obviously, this is true to some degree. We are all shaped by both our genetics and personal history, and childhood experiences can be influential. However, Freud and modern evidence-based psychology differ on how we should go about dealing with our past.

Dealing with the past is a controversial and complex topic. To begin with, there are different types of negative past events. For example, being bullied as a child is quite distinct from a difficult breakup. Therefore, the specific treatment will depend on the individual and their circumstances. I will not attempt a full literature review of this active research area, but I will make two general comments.


1. We can’t change the past, but we can change the way we think about the past.

It is important to acknowledge the negative events of our past, but unlike psychoanalysis, we must realise that they do not determine “who we are”. We are capable of living happy lives if we learn to think in a more rational, positive way. How can we accomplish this? If you’re a regular reader of my blog you will know what I’m about to say: cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). CBT does NOT adhere to “just get over it” attitude. Rather, the goal of CBT treatment is to identify and target the unhelpful thinking patterns in the present that are maintaining the problem. Ultimately, the aim is to get to the point where these memories no longer upset us. In a sense, CBT therapy really isn’t about the past at all.


2. Dwelling too much on the past is not good for our mental health. However, if not the past, what should we be thinking about? When are we happiest?

“Live in the moment” is common advice, and in this case, it seems to be right! There is some interesting research that shows we are happiest when we are absorbed in what we’re doing, not letting our minds wander. CBT also has strategies to help people accomplish this! I try to do this as much as possible, while taking the occasional break to plan my future using my nerdy excel method.

These two points have something in common: the present. Since Freud’s time, it seems we’ve learned that living in the present is the key to dealing with the past.





Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of AI-Therapy.com, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety