Stranger anxiety is an intense fear or mistrust a baby or toddler feels around someone she does not know. This is a common occurrence for infants and toddlers, starting around eight or nine months of age. Babies are generally happy creatures by nature and will generally feel comfortable around most people as long as their basic needs are being met. As your baby reaches the eight-month mark, you might notice she begins to develop a preference for her primary caregivers. She will be wary or even unwilling to allow others to hold or play with her, possibly bursting into tears and clinging to mom or dad with a vice-like grip.
What Causes Anxiety About Strangers?
Infant Anxiety as a Survival Mechanism
Your baby will begin to develop a bond with you at birth, but she will start to understand the difference between you and other caregivers around six months of age. For this reason, anyone who is unfamiliar and may not meet her needs may be met with wariness and suspicion. Your infant begins to understand who her primary caregivers are and becomes fearful when you (or Dad or Grandma) leaves the room. She will cry and scream in fear her needs will not be met, so fear of strangers at this age is a type of survival mechanism. This is also a completely normal developmental phase that most infants will go through, and it will usually last until your baby is 18 months old. Your baby might never experience stranger anxiety (around 20 percent of babies don't, according to What To Expect The First Year), or she may remain clingy to you or another primary caregiver well into her toddler years.
Toddlers Demonstrating Attachment
Toddlers will experience anxiety about strangers in a different way than infants. Your toddler will begin to develop his independence around the age of two, but he will still look to Mom and Dad for guidance and reassurance. For this reason, strangers and even relatives who aren't seen very often may be perceived as threatening to his well-being. This can happen suddenly, even if your child did not demonstrate anxiety as an infant. He may suddenly refuse to go to daycare and cling to your leg when Grandma walks in the room. Fear of strangers in your toddler is actually an indication of secure attachments to primary caregivers, although his fear of other people seems to contradict this belief. It is also an indication of a maturing thought process, as your toddler begins to realize people outside his normal social circle may be a threat or have less-than-desirable intentions.
Tips For Dealing with Stranger Anxiety
Helping Your Infant Adjust
Avoid forcing your baby to interact with strangers or people she is uncomfortable with. This will only make the situation worse and could actually perpetuate the anxiety for a longer period of time. Instead, sit with your baby and slowly introduce her to the person. You should remain positive and upbeat when talking to the person, since your infant will take cues from you as you interact with others. You can try placing some of your baby's favorite toys on the ground and having the other person attempt to give her one. As your baby starts to get comfortable, slowly back away but stay within her eyesight. Give her encouraging words, such as "You remember Grandma, she came to visit and play with you," and keep a smile on your face. You should explain to grandparents or other close relatives that anxiety around strangers isn't personal, as they may become upset or discouraged when your baby rejects interaction with them.
Developing Your Toddler's Social Skills
You can handle your toddler's fear of strangers in a similar fashion to infant anxieties. You should still avoid any forced interactions with strangers, and you can encourage people to introduce themselves to your toddler prior to any physical contact. Explain to your toddler who the person is and encourage him to say hello or wave. For a toddler who is extremely shy or backward, you should provide as much exposure as possible to new people, places and things. Take walks in your neighborhood and talk to people you see passing by. Talk to the clerk at the supermarket or the repairman fixing your dishwasher. Allow your toddler to interact with others at his own pace, and offer him verbal and physical encouragement along the way, such as a hug or pat on the back.
Things To Remember
Dr. David Geller recommends being patient during this trying time in your infant or toddler's life. Stranger anxiety may pass quickly or last several months, and your child needs your love and support to get through it. Never blame your child or dismiss her feelings of fear, anxiety and nervousness. You should not blame yourself either - parenting skills have nothing to do with stranger anxiety. If fear of strangers becomes troublesome for your child or lasts past his third birthday, talk to your pediatrician. There may be an underlying cause for the issues, such as sensory issues or autism.