How to Overcome Stranger Anxiety

Many babies and children become upset when they encounter new people. It is as if the very unfamiliarity of the face, voice and gestures cause distress. This stranger anxiety is part of the development process in children as their world expands to include more and more people and situations. Occasionally, the fear of strangers becomes so great that their intense emotions begin to limit activities. Parents must then step in to provide support and encouragement to overcome these fears.

What Is Stranger Anxiety

Stranger anxiety is a term used to describe the reactions of distress that children experience when encountering people they do not know, and sometimes with people who they do know but do not encounter on an everyday basis. Reactions can be minor or severe, depending on the emotional make-up of the child.

Symptoms of Stranger Anxiety

Some of the symptoms of stranger anxiety in a child is becoming very quiet and staring at the new person, hiding behind the parent, crying, clinging to the parent or hiding his face. The reaction can lead into a full howl of distress that can seem out of proportion to the initial stimulus. Some babies and small children are highly reactive and have little ability to calm themselves when fearful situations arise. It is up to the parent to step in and provide reassurance when the fears get out of hand.

Typical Ages for Stranger Anxiety

As a parent, you may first encounter stranger anxiety in your child at the age of 8 months, or sometimes as early as 6 months.  The baby may become upset and cry when unfamiliar people approach.  This behavior is a result of the child’s becoming aware of his separate identity from his mother. This awareness can cause anxiety when the child faces new situations. Stranger anxiety can resurface during the toddler period, around 12 to 24 months. The child may react emotionally when encountering grandparents or other people with whom they have previously been comfortable. Child psychologists are uncertain why this occurs, but it is generally not because of anything the previously familiar person has done. The behavior appears to be a distinction between who is very close and who is not. .

Overcoming Stranger Anxiety

Babies and small children often pick up on feelings of anxiety in their parents and caregivers, so examine your own feelings about meeting strange people. Maybe you too have feelings of anxiety about new situations or about having your child approached by other people. Try to give off a feeling of calm and confidence in these situations. Any good idea is to stay close to the child to reassure him. Explain to “strangers” that the child has entered a phase of development and its no reflection on them. Keep your voice calm and steady as you reassure the child.  Do not feel that your child’s reaction is reason to shelter him from strange situations. Continue to expose the child to new situations, supporting him with your words and actions until he gains more confidence.

With a little support and reassurance, you can ease your child through these unsteady phases of development. If the anxiety continues or increases in spite of your efforts, talk to your pediatrician about ways to help the child through this stage of his development.