Parents may become concerned when a child suddenly shows fear in the presence of others. Stranger anxiety refers to the time in a child’s life when they become more fearful of unfamiliar people. Understanding stranger anxiety and learning ways to support children during this time can help you and your family through this challenging developmental stage.
What is stranger anxiety?
Stranger anxiety is the fear, anxiety, and distress that young children experience when exposed to unfamiliar people. Many children, especially infants and toddlers, experience stranger anxiety. For most children, it first starts around seven to eight months old and gradually subsides by two years old. However, some children may show signs as early as six months old. Stranger anxiety usually peaks around 12 to 15 months.
Before six months old, most infants show little reaction to being around strangers. However, by seven to eight months they begin to develop a strong preference for their parents or primary caregivers. When exposed to strangers, they may become anxious and react by crying, fussing, and yearning for the people that make them feel safest. For example, a child may become upset when a stranger makes a silly face at them and cling to their parents for safety. Seeing or being held by their caregivers can help them calm down.
Stranger anxiety is similar to, but different from, separation anxiety, which occurs when children feel anxious or upset by being separated from their parents or primary caregivers. Children can experience both separation and stranger anxiety at the same time.
Is stranger anxiety normal?
Stranger anxiety is a normal part of development and is not generally a cause for concern. Around seven to eight months old, infants begin to distinguish between what is familiar and unfamiliar. Prior to this age they do not have this skill. This can cause distress when they realize that they’re in the presence of someone unfamiliar.
Most children experience stranger anxiety at some point, but they can vary widely in how they react to strangers. Some infants may become mildly upset, while others may become hysterical. The intensity and length of stranger anxiety differs from child to child.
Stranger anxiety doesn’t only happen around complete strangers. Children may show signs of stranger anxiety when they’re around other people that they see often, like grandparents. Some children may even prefer one parent over another. For example, a child may become upset when left alone with the parent that they see the least often. If your child is showing signs of stranger anxiety and under two years old, rest assured that this behavior is normal.
How can I help my child cope with stranger anxiety?
In many cases there is no way to avoid stranger anxiety, but there are steps you can take to minimize it and also help children calm down faster. Remember that stranger anxiety doesn’t only happen with complete strangers. It can also occur in the presence of familiar people, like parents, grandparents, babysitters, or daycare providers.
If your child is appearing anxious or fearful around others, you can help by:
Educating relatives and others who interact with your baby about stranger anxiety
They may be upset by the fact that your baby is suddenly afraid of them. Explain that this is a normal developmental stage and will likely pass over time. Ask for their patience with your child and provide them with guidance on how to help.
Providing support and reassurance to your child
Hold your child close to you and remind them that they are safe. Even if your child is too young to understand, your body language and tone of voice can communicate love and reassurance. This simple act can help your child calm down faster. If they continue to appear distressed, you can take them to another room where the two of you can be alone. Once your child is calm and relaxed, you can slowly transition back to being around other people, all while continuing to provide support.
Continue to introduce them to new people
It can be tempting to avoid exposing your child to strangers during this stage. However, completely avoiding social situations can actually worsen the anxiety over time. Instead, make an effort to expose your child to new people on a regular basis while you’re present. Of course do so slowly and gently. This will help your child become more used to strangers and comfortable in social settings.
To help reduce a child’s stranger anxiety, you will want to help them become more comfortable with other caregivers. If you’re leaving your child with a babysitter or relative, be sure to:
Have the sitter arrive early
This will give your child a chance to warm up to the new person. You can start by interacting with your child and the sitter and then gradually moving away so they can interact with one another without you. It may help to allow at least 30 minutes for this transition period.
Encourage them to give the child space at first
Rather than rushing in and picking up or hugging your child, ask that relatives and sitters maintain some distance at first. This will give your child a chance to warm up at their own pace.
Don’t draw out your goodbye
After you’ve given your child sufficient time (at least 30 minutes) to warm up to their new caretaker, say goodbye and leave. Your child may cry initially in an effort to get you to stay, but they will most likely calm down within a few minutes. Ask your sitter to contact you if your child continues to cry after 30 minutes.
Remember to practice patience with yourself and your child. It will take time for them to work through stranger anxiety and become more comfortable around other people.
When is it time to seek help?
While stranger anxiety is a normal part of development, it may be a sign of a mental health disorder if it continues beyond two years old. If your child shows signs of any of the following, be sure to discuss your concerns with their pediatrician.
Reactive attachment disorder
Reactive attachment disorder can occur in children who grow up in unstable environments. For example, children raised in foster care or abusive homes may be at risk. Children with this disorder may appear uncomfortable and withdrawn around adults. They are unlikely to seek comfort from adults when they’re upset and can often appear sad, irritable, and afraid. Children must show these signs before age five in order to be diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder.
Childhood anxiety disorders
If your child seems to be mainly anxious about people and being in social settings, then they may be showing signs of social anxiety disorder. A child with this condition will either avoid social situations entirely, like school and play dates, or endure them with significant distress. If your child is feeling anxious about more than just being around people and also experiencing other symptoms, like fatigue, irritability, and trouble concentrating, then they may be showing signs of generalized anxiety disorder. In both of these cases, a child’s anxiety is so severe that it affects how they live their lives and interferes with how they function at school and interact with family and friends.
If you’re concerned that your child may have more than just stranger anxiety, you can start by speaking with your child’s pediatrician, who will be able to assess your child further and determine whether their behavior is normal for their age or a sign of an underlying anxiety condition. They may suggest that you take your child to see a mental health professional, like a psychiatrist or therapist. They will be able to further evaluate and treat your child.
What type of treatment is available?
If your child is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, treatment may include medication, therapy, or both. Medications are used in some cases of severe anxiety with children. If your child’s pediatrician or psychiatrist feels that they would benefit from medication, they will discuss the pros, cons, and options with you.
There are different types of therapy that are effective at treating anxiety in children. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular treatment for childhood anxiety. It focuses on changing unhealthy cognitions, which are thoughts and beliefs that contribute to anxiety. CBT can help the child replace unhealthy thoughts and beliefs with more healthy ones. Children will also learn tools and skills to help decrease their anxiety.
Play therapy and family therapy may also be used to treat childhood anxiety or reactive attachment disorder. During play therapy, therapists utilize techniques to help children express themselves and deal with emotional issues using the act of play. Therapists should be certified or specialize in this area.
Family therapy involves meeting with a therapist to work through family issues and improve communication. When children are involved, therapists may help educate parents on parenting techniques and encourage a healthier relationship between parent and child.
Stranger anxiety is a normal development stage that begins around seven months old and typically resolves around two years old. Parents and caregivers can help support children during this time by practicing patience, easing children into introductions with strangers, and making efforts to soothe them when they become anxious. In most cases stranger anxiety is not a cause for concern. However, if it continues beyond two years old and is severe, it may be a sign of another disorder.