What Is Stranger Anxiety?
Stranger anxiety is a common problem among infants and toddlers. This type of anxiety occurs when one or both parents are strangers to the child. It may occur even if the parent is very close to the child.
The term “stranger” refers to anyone other than the mother and father. For example, a friend’s mom might be a stranger to her daughter, but not vice versa. A relative could be considered a stranger too, such as your aunt who lives with you. Even someone you’ve never met before can cause this type of anxiety because they’re unfamiliar and it makes them seem like they don’t care about you.
It is important to note that the word “anxiety” isn’t used here. Strangers aren’t scary or threatening. They just happen to be different from the ones we’re familiar with and feel uncomfortable around us.
Symptoms of Stranger Anxiety
Some symptoms of stranger anxiety include:
Fears that the person will hurt you (even if they won’t) or worse, leave you alone.
Fear that the person will take away something you want or need, such as food, clothing, toys, etc..
Fear that the person is a monster or “bad” in some way.
Refusal to engage in social interaction with the person.
Trying to stay close to one of your parents if the stranger tries to interact with you.
Whining, crying, or getting upset when the person tries to interact with you.
Refusal to go anywhere near the person.
Refusing to acknowledge the person’s presence.
Demanding that one of your parents is present at all times.
Demanding that the person leave the room or area.
Demanding that the person leave you alone.
Demanding that the person not touch you.
Withdrawal, such as refusing to talk, interact with others, or play with toys.
Some symptoms will be more obvious than others based on the age of your child. For example, a 1-year-old isn’t going to demand that a stranger leave them alone or that they not touch them. Instead, the 1-year-old will probably scream, cry, or some similar noise when the stranger tries to interact with them.
Potential Causes of Stranger Anxiety
Stranger anxiety can be caused by a variety of factors affecting a child. It is completely normal for all children to feel a certain level of anxiety when meeting strangers, especially if the child doesn’t already know them.
The age at which stranger anxiety starts can also vary between different children. Some may develop it as early as a few months old, while others won’t show any signs of it until they’re 2 or 3 years old.
Stranger anxiety is often a combination of both biological and environmental factors. The latter is especially true for children who don’t show any signs of stranger anxiety until they reach the age at which they are exposed to other children.
It is also normal for different children to react differently when encountering a stranger. Some may be more shy or timid around them, while others may be curious or even outgoing.
What You Can Do About Stranger Anxiety
There are many things that parents can do to help their children get over their anxiety around strangers. It is important to remember, however, that some children will outgrow their stranger anxiety without any assistance.
For parents who want to help their children, however, here are some tips:
Expose Them to a Variety of People
This tip can’t be stressed enough. If your child only ever meets your family members or other people they are already familiar with, then their circle of friends will never expand beyond that. In order for them to become comfortable with meeting new people, you’ll need to introduce them to as many different people as you can.
You may be surprised at the number of people you interact with on a regular basis that your child has never met before. For example, if you take your child to the grocery store, you may think that everyone you meet there already knows who your child is. Instead, though, they are just strangers to them.
In order to help your child overcome stranger anxiety, make sure that you introduce them to anyone you come in contact with, even if it’s just a quick introduction. By doing this, you’ll slowly teach them that strangers aren’t going to harm them or do anything bad.
Be a Good Role Model
The main reason why people aren’t eager to talk to strangers is the fear of the unknown. Most people like familiarity, which is why you probably prefer to shop at a store that you’ve shopped at many times before rather than try out a new place. Your child feels the same way, so in order to get them to open up to new people, you’ll need to do it first.
Sources & references used in this article:
The familiar stranger: anxiety, comfort, and play in public places by E Paulos, E Goodman – Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on …, 2004 – dl.acm.org
Infant and stranger variables related to stranger anxiety in the first year of life. by DJ Greenberg, D Hillman, D Grice – Developmental Psychology, 1973 – psycnet.apa.org
Elective mutism: Origins in stranger anxiety and selective attention by DF Shreeve – Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 1991 – search.proquest.com
Early predictors of separation anxiety disorder: early stranger anxiety, parental pathology and prenatal factors by K Lavallee, C Herren, J Blatter-Meunier, C Adornetto… – …, 2011 – karger.com