We told our kids the truth about Santa this year. They are seven and nearly three. Put down your torch and pitchfork, Karen. It turns out telling them the truth can still be pretty amazing.

When raising an extreme child—one with behavior and anxiety diagnoses—the holidays can be an exceptionally trying time. From the sugar-fueled parties to extra food, extra guests, flashing lights, and unwelcome sensory input from singing and gift wrap, our kids can become overwhelmed in an instant.

This extreme parenting reality was a main motivator for us deciding to shed some light on the truth about Christmas with our kids.

As non-denominational Christians, we’d always placed an emphasis on Christmas being about celebrating Jesus’ birth and the miracle God performed in that instance. As minimalists and tiny house dwellers, we also make sure to focus on servanthood over greed during the holidays in a consumer-driven society.

However, I am a total sucker for tradition. I mean I still remember the wonder and awe I felt as a kid rushing downstairs to see the tree all lit up and beautiful with gifts piled underneath. I didn’t want my own kids to miss out on the magic of that feeling.

I also know, after several years raising an extreme child, that honesty and trust must be central. There are few gray areas to a kid whose brain is affected in the social and communicative.

So I wrestled with what to do.

I still remember that dang Kerry from daycare who told me about Santa when I was about eight. She was a life-ruiner and I didn’t want to do that to my kids. But it came down to this: the magic isn’t in the man of Santa, but in the idea of him.

After much prayer and conversation, we decided to explain to our kids that Santa is much like the heroes and princesses in the movies. If they meet a character at an event or theme park, they know it isn’t the real thing, but it is still a magical experience.

Our kids understood and accepted that.

We still visit Santa each year. We go see Christmas lights and we even hide that freaking elf around our house.

The difference is that, instead of stressing over a Pinterest-perfect plan for your kids’ elf to appear and spread Christmas joy while simultaneously inflicting an equally acceptable level of fear and intimidation to help promote a month of improved behavior, we know that isn’t our focus.

Our son’s diagnosis gives him a specific set of skills as well as hardships. If we were to tell him that an elf or Santa or Mother stinking Theresa were watching him at all times and would report back his “bad behavior” to Santa, that would be cruel.

Our boy can sometimes not contain his behavior for 10 minutes, much less an entire day, a week, or the month following Thanksgiving. If we said he wouldn’t get presents if he was “bad”, we’d be setting him up for failure and disappointment.

See, our son loves Christmas. This year he has already planned out his service project for our community and both of our kids always donate toys and books for others who need them more than they do. As their mama, THAT is the magic.

His presents cannot and will never be based on his performance as a child. He struggles more than the average kid, sure. But he is kind and good, thoughtful and creative, loving and kind. He just has more difficulty navigating through those things. I can’t imagine telling him that he is “bad” or that some mystical creature deemed him not good enough.

See parents of neurotypical kids might not see what extreme parents see. Our kids, as young as four or five can list out the things they think are “bad” or “wrong” about themselves. Some even have self harming thoughts because, though they aren’t yet mature enough to fully understand, they know enough to know they are different.

So, no elf, nor Santa, nor Karen or anyone else will tell my child he is bad. No ma’am.

We will be truthful with our kids about Santa and his connection with the holiday season while touring twinkling lights and eating cookies shaped like reindeer.

We will teach our kids about Jesus’ birth and His love for us while attending candlelight services on Christmas Eve.

We will continue to model servanthood and love for our community this time of year and always.

And we will praise our kids regardless, only helping them navigate through “poor decisions”, not “being bad”. Therein lies that kind of mystical joy only the holiday season can possess.

That, my friends, is magical.

Brynn Burger

I am a wife, a mother, a teacher, a friend, a writer, a lover of all things outdoors, and sometimes a shell of my former self. Parenting a child with behavior disabilities has become both my prison and my passion. I write so I can breathe. This is my therapy. I hope that my violent vulnerability and use of humor will help you to power through this with me. It is the only way I know.