Stranger Anxiety: Understanding Children’s Fear of Unfamiliar People
Stranger anxiety is a typical response of infants towards people they do not recognise or are unfamiliar with. It is a normal developmental phase for babies between the ages of 6 months to 2 years, but it can also be observed in some older children. This behaviour is a natural adaptation that is believed to have evolved to protect children from potential harm and danger.
What is Stranger Anxiety?
Stranger anxiety is a form of social anxiety that affects infants when they encounter people who are not part of their immediate family, close relatives, or caregivers. This means that whenever an unfamiliar person approaches a baby, the baby becomes increasingly wary, anxious, and may start to cry, cling or show signs of distress or discomfort.
There are different factors that contribute to the development of stranger anxiety in infants such as cognitive, emotional, and social changes. For example, as they grow older, babies become more aware of their surroundings, they develop a sense of self and a perception of others, which allows them to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar faces and recognise people they interact with more frequently.
Additionally, at this stage of development, infants are also learning to communicate verbally and non-verbally, and they use these skills to express their emotions, needs and feelings to others. However, when encountering strangers, babies feel confused and insecure, and they may not trust them fully because they are unsure of their intentions, which may make them feel vulnerable and exposed.
What are the Symptoms of Stranger Anxiety?
The symptoms of stranger anxiety vary among children, and they depend on factors such as the age, personality, temperament, and past experiences of the child. Generally speaking, there are some common signs of stranger anxiety that parents and caregivers should be aware of, including:
- crying or screaming when being held or approached by someone unfamiliar
- looking away, avoiding eye contact, or looking at the parent for reassurance
- clinging or holding onto a parent or caregiver tightly
- being hesitant or resistant to go to unfamiliar people or places
- displaying distress, agitation, or anger when separated from the primary caregiver
- showing signs of fear or anxiety, such as trembling, sweating or panting
If these symptoms persist for a prolonged period and interfere with the child’s social and emotional development, it may be appropriate to seek professional advice from a pediatrician or a child psychologist.
How to Help Your Child Overcome Stranger Anxiety?
Stranger anxiety is a temporary phase, and most babies grow out of it by the age of two years old. However, parents and caregivers can help their children feel more comfortable and secure around unfamiliar people by following some simple strategies:
Introduce your baby to new people gradually and in a controlled setting. Start by letting them see the new people from a distance, and gradually move closer until they feel comfortable. Allow the baby to interact with new people in their own time and pace, and avoid overstimulating them with too much socialisation at once.
Being a role model
Infants learn by observing their parents and caregivers’ attitudes and behaviours towards unfamiliar people. Therefore, try to model positive socialisation by being friendly, welcoming, and kind to new people, as your child is likely to emulate this behaviour.
It is important to encourage your child to develop independence and to build their confidence when interacting with unfamiliar people. Give your child a chance to initiate contact with new people, and praise them for positive interactions and behaviour.
Providing comfort and reassurance
Give your child plenty of comfort and reassurance when they are feeling anxious or distressed. Use a calming voice, make eye contact, and cuddle them to help them feel safe and secure. Be patient and understanding and avoid belittling their fears or concerns.
Stranger anxiety is a normal developmental phase that is characterised by fear and anxiety towards unfamiliar people. While it can be distressing for parents and caregivers, it is a natural and adaptive response that helps protect children from potential danger. Remember that stranger anxiety is a temporary phase and that most infants grow out of it by the age of 2 years old. If you have concerns about your child’s behaviour or development, seek professional advice from a pediatrician or a child psychologist.
FAQs About Stranger Anxiety
What is stranger anxiety?
Stranger anxiety is a common phenomenon in infants and young children where they show apprehension and fear towards unfamiliar people. This behaviour is a natural part of child development and typically begins to occur around 8-9 months of age.
How can parents and caregivers help their child overcome stranger anxiety?
Parents and caregivers can help their child overcome stranger anxiety by gradually exposing them to new people and environments. They can also give their child a sense of security by remaining close and providing comfort during unfamiliar situations. It is important to approach this process with patience and understanding as every child will have their own unique temperament and timeline for overcoming fear.
When should parents and caregivers seek professional help for their child’s stranger anxiety?
While stranger anxiety is a normal part of development, parents and caregivers should seek professional help if their child’s fear is excessive or interferes with their daily routines. A child who struggles to function in social settings or consistently displays heightened levels of anxiety may benefit from therapy or other forms of support. It is important to address and manage anxiety in children to prevent it from affecting their development and quality of life.
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3. Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.