Therapist: Elf on the Shelf can promote positive behavior, not just mischief

WICHITA, Kan. - Elf on the Shelf is a holiday tradition for a lot of families. Elves visit every day to make sure the kids are behaving. They report back to Santa and as long as kids are on the nice list, Santa delivers gifts on Christmas Eve.

Hadley, Addy and Hank woke up one morning and found their elves made a mess.

"They put silly string everywhere," Hank says, "He was very naughty and he wrapped it on his head."

The kids' mom, Becky Casey, says the elves visit every December to help the kids countdown to Christmas.

"They have a job to do: they watch the kids, they keep an eye on them to see if they're being nice, if they're sharing, if they're keeping their room clean," Becky says.

With each visit, the elves surprise the kids.

"They put googly eyes on our pictures yesterday," Hank says.

Deneen Dryden is a marriage and family therapist at Heartspring. She says the elves can bring joy and anticipation to the holiday. But for some kids, it's not so exciting.

"Knowing that the elf is watching and reporting back to Santa - their behavior - can produce feelings of discouragement and even anxiety," Dryden says.

She says while the elves can be holiday fun for some families, it may not be appropriate for other families. Some kids have problems with decision making and impulse control. Those parents may want to ask the elves to stay in the North Pole.

She says if parents rely on the elves to get their kids to behave, the results will be short-lived. "Short term rewards fail to instill long-term motivation," Dryden says.

"As parents, you know your child the best and your family and you will make the right choice," she says.

The elves don't have to get into mischief, either. The elves can send positive messages instead.

'I saw you playing well with your brother' or 'thanks for being a good friend to your neighbor' are a few ways the elves can reinforce good behavior.

The Casey family's elves do that too. Once, the elves brought a basket and encouraged the kids to donate toys they no longer play with to other kids in need.

"Every December, they come and hang out with our nativity scene to remember the true reason for the season. So they do things that enforce why we celebrate Christmas, and what's important and giving to others," Becky says.

Becky says her kids are well-behaved throughout the year. "We behave just the same," says Hadley.

Dryden says the elves are there to encourage good behavior. She says if your kid acts up even with the elves watching, she recommends spending 10-15 minutes one-on-one with your child. She says that interaction is the best way to correct bad behavior.

She also suggests that parents ask each kid how they feel about the elves. If the kids say they feel nervous or uncomfortable, the elves should stay with Santa.