Does your toddler act weird in front of strangers? Does he cling to your leg or flees the moment he sees a stranger? Are you caught between soothing your anxious child and the adults who feel hurt by your child’s strange behavior? Does his increasing aversion to strangers baffle you and puts you in an awkward situation sometimes? Do not worry! As stranger anxiety in toddlers is a common and natural process. Here is everything you need to know.
What is stranger anxiety in toddlers?
A newborn snuggles up in anybody’s arms. Within the first few months, babies begin to recognize their parents. At 4 to 5 months, toddlers begin recognizing familiar faces and even smiling at them. You may have enjoyed this phase when your toddlers love playing peek-a-boo with everybody.
But at 6-8 months, they may start feeling distressed on seeing or interacting with unfamiliar faces. This is called stranger anxiety. It is a less talked about phenomenon. Hence, parents are likely to be worried about their playful toddlers suddenly exhibiting these big emotional responses and becoming upset about seeing strangers.
Is it normal?
This is probably the first question that arises in your mind. Yes, stranger anxiety in toddlers is an essential stage in your child’s development. It is an important milestone which shows that your child is learning to differentiate between “familiar” and “unfamiliar”. And it manifests their budding sense of healthy “attachment” to you. They are learning that the relationship they have with you or other familiar people is different from the relationship they have with unfamiliar people.
However; if it is very intense or lasts for a long time, it might be a sign of more generalized anxiety. In this case, seek a doctor’s assistance.
Cause of Stranger Anxiety in Toddlers: Is it your fault?
Most parents blame themselves for this strange behavior of their child. You might wonder, “Is it my fault? Does it have something to do with my parenting?”
Most probably not!
In most cases, it is just a normal development phase. Your child is just becoming used to people and wants these people to be the permanent members around him. Their image starts becoming preserved in their brains. A new person’s image may cause dissonance which leads to a feeling of anxiety and fear. They may not even recognize you in a different demeanor if your image doesn’t correspond with the image in their brains.
Effects of Parental Modeling
However studies show that parental attitudes also have effects on children. They are most likely to mimic your actions in the early years of development. Research has shown that maternal social phobia is most likely to cause increasing stranger anxiety between 10 and 14 months of age. A child who sees his mother exhibiting negative reactions to people is more likely to have negative responses towards people too. So you need to be careful about the behavioral information your child is getting from you.
Every toddler is different
Stranger anxiety in toddlers varies in intensity and duration. Every toddler will get comfortable with new people at his own pace.
- Some toddlers are only a wee bit scared; while others show extreme reactions. They may be extremely shy or fearful. They may show a mortifying tantrum even to non-strangers such as grandma.
- Some toddlers outgrow it very quickly; while others take a longer time.
- Toddlers may be scared of “all” unfamiliar faces or a specific group of strangers, e.g. men with beards.
When will they outgrow it?
Stanger anxiety in toddlers often begins around 6-8 months and peaks during the first year between 7 and 10 months. However, it may resurface between 12 and 24 months. Then it gradually decreases and abates by 18 months to 2 years.
Stranger Anxiety vs. Separation Anxiety
It is important to distinguish stranger anxiety in toddlers from separation anxiety which also begins at this age. Separation anxiety is the fear of being parted from parents.
- If a child shows distress when parents leave, and does not feel comfortable even with other familiar people like a grandparent or regular babysitter, he is most probably experiencing separation anxiety rather than stranger anxiety.
- If a child shows distress when approached by an “unfamiliar” person, they are probably going through stranger anxiety.
Signs and Symptoms: What to look out for?
As the intensity and duration of stranger anxiety in toddlers vary; the signs and symptoms also vary from toddler to toddler. Your child may show the following signs:
Your child may abruptly go quiet on seeing a stranger. He won’t even say a word.
Loud crying and fussiness
Some toddlers show extreme behaviors like wailing.
Staring at the stranger
They may eyeball the stranger who is trying to hold him; as if asking “Who is he? Why is he touching me?”
Hiding behind caregivers
Your child may cling to your legs. He may bury his head in your neck and refuse to turn his head.
Dealing with Stranger Anxiety in Toddlers: What can you do?
The stranger anxiety in toddlers will eventually subside. But is there anything you can do to help your child deal with it? Comforting your child and avoiding overreaction is the simplest answer to this question. These are the strategies you can use:
Understand your child’s stranger anxiety
“You have a spoilt child. Don’t give him too much attention.” You are likely to hear these lines from people, delivered with eye-rolling and disapproval. But do not lend a listening ear! Your child should be your priority. So, show an understanding of his fears. Do not dismiss or ignore his feelings; this will further exacerbate the problem. Never tease or threaten your child. Do not pressurize him to respond maturely.
Make your child feel “safe”
When you introduce your child to new people, make sure he feels safe. Hold his hand or at least offer to hold his hand. Stay within an arm’s length. Let him know that you are there for him for security. This will make him feel safe and create a feeling of trust between him and the stranger.
Introduce strangers at home first
Home is where the child feels most comfortable; so it is better to introduce strangers at home. It increases the chances of your child acquainting with them sooner.
Give them a comfort item
It has been found useful to give a comfort item to your child which he can cling to while interacting with a stranger. It can be a fluffy teddy bear, a blanket, or anything your child feels comfortable holding onto.
Also Read: Best Toys For 6 Month Old Babies
Counsel your friends and family
You must discuss your child’s problem with your friends and family beforehand. Before introducing them to your child, make sure they understand that your child has stranger anxiety. You can send articles on stranger anxiety in toddlers to them. This will help them understand that it is a natural phenomenon and they need to be patient with the child. They should not rush to hold the child in their arms or hug and kiss them. They should play it cool, and then slowly give your child an incentive such as a toy to make him feel comfortable. Ask them to talk to your child in a very soft and friendly tone.
Frequently introduce your child to new people
Take him to places where he might meet new people, such as a birthday party. But be patient if a fearful situation shows up.
What if a panic situation shows up?
Be patient. You might be in a very embarrassing and awkward position, but you must prioritize your child. Scoop him up, rub his back slightly and say short phrases like “I know! I know!”
Take it slowly
You will have to take it at your child’s pace. This requires patience. Never ridicule or label the child for being frightened. Give him time to warm up. Don’t push him to go to people when he isn’t ready. It rushed, he can become even more sensitive.
Also Read: How To Be A Good Mom?
Give him positive cues
Toddlers are extremely empathic. They watch you for cues. They understand your feelings without understanding the reason. If you are anxious with a particular person, your child is very likely to have the same feelings towards that person. So make sure you give them positive cues. Show them you are not scared of meeting new people. Your positive and comforting tone and demeanor will help them feel comfortable and understand there is nothing to worry about.
Reassure the adult
If the adult is someone who loves the child, he may feel hurt; especially grandparents. Even if they say they understand, you should make an extra effort to tell them you understand that it is worrying or hurtful for them. Reassure them that your child does not hate them; he just takes time to get used to people. He will soon outgrow it.
Gradually bring new caregivers in their life
If you are planning to keep a new babysitter, bring them in your child’s life gradually. You may call them home first to help your child get used to them. Make the transition easier to win your child’s approval. Moreover, stick around before leaving them with the caregiver. Never sneak out without saying goodbye. This will make them feel they cannot even trust you, which further increases their anxiety.
Prepare your child
For slightly older children, prepare them beforehand. They need to know where they are going. Who are people they are more likely to meet there? And why are they meeting them?
Also Read: What To Teach a 5 Year Old Kid?
Red-flags: When should you worry?
Stranger anxiety in toddlers is a natural process. But you need to worry if:
- your child has extreme social anxiety
- there is a steep increase in his anxiety
- it is not getting any better; rather it is becoming worse
- your child is anxious even when there are no unfamiliar people around
Seek help from a pediatrician in case of extreme stranger anxiety of pronounced intensity and extended duration. It may be a risk factor for anxiety.
A 2017 study by Carol A. Van Hulle, Mollie N. Moore, and Rebecca J. Brooker showed that toddlers who showed steep increases in stranger anxiety between 6 and 36 months were at a greater risk of suffering from anxiety at the age of 8 years than infants whose stranger anxiety increased slowly.
The development of stranger anxiety in toddlers is worrisome and frustrating for parents indeed. But it is extremely important to treat your children with understanding, support, and love through this important phase of their cognitive development. Let them feel you understand them, and prioritize their comfort and needs over anything else. As a result, your patience and persistence will bear fruit, soon your child will learn to feel comfortable with unfamiliar faces.