Stranger Anxiety (A brief guide)

In this guide, we will discuss what stranger anxiety is, the difference between stranger anxiety and separation anxiety and some tips to cope with it.  

Stranger anxiety: What is it?

Stranger anxiety is considered as the distress infants or toddlers feel when they are exposed to unfamiliar people. They can start experiencing stranger anxiety as early as 6 months of age, but it is said to start usually between 8 and 9 months of age, before this age, most infants usually accept unfamiliar people without a problem. 

When your baby was born, he/she used to be passed from one person to the other without much fuss as long as all their needs were met. However, while they get older, this tends to change and you can feel it as a very frustrating experience because they develop this “attachment” where you are not even able to go to the bathroom alone. Be patience, it shall pass. 

According to the Centre for Effective Parenting, “as infants approach eight and

nine months of age, they begin to show strong preferences for the people who care for them the most – usually their parents. At this time infants are beginning to realize that all people are not the same and that the relationship they have with their primary caregivers is special.”

As you may have noticed with your child, they can become highly selective on who they let hold them or play with them, and usually, these types of activities are reserved for family members they are familiar with, otherwise, they will feel scared and afraid. 

In addition, it is believed stranger anxiety peaks around 12 to 15 months of age and then it starts to decrease after it in most cases. Certain behaviors you can notice if your child is experiencing stranger anxiety are protesting, refusing or becoming vocal about their discomfort when someone strange approaches them. 

However, other infants can become very quiet and will stare at the stranger, others can cry non-stop or may even try to hide behind their parent or caregiver. 

What can you do as a parent?

Stranger anxiety is believed to be normal and a part of your child’s development. While it is almost inevitable to avoid stranger anxiety, there are some steps you can follow as a parent or caregiver to minimize how the child is feeling during this developmental period.

Don’t pressure them

Trying to pressure your child to become sociable will actually have the contrary effect and increase their anxiety. Instead, you should try to allow your infant to become familiar with new faces and people at their own pace. 

Don’t ignore your infant’s distress

When your child is feeling distressed when exposed to unfamiliar people or faces should not be ignored. Ignoring it may only cause more anxiety in your toddler and can increase clinginess and more distress. Try addressing your child’s distress without making it a big deal or without getting angry at them. 

Let friends and family know 

It is important to warn friends or family that they should not take things personally if your child avoids or refuses to interact with them. Instead, encourage them to try to build trust over time and gradually exposing themselves to interacting with the child without forcing them. 

Educate your friends and relatives on how to approach your child 

Make sure you let them know how to better approach your child, explaining what are the things they can or can’t do to make your toddler feel comfortable around them. 

The center for effective parenting gives a great example, “friends and relatives should be told that young children need time to warm up to unfamiliar people. Instead of rushing in and picking children up, friends and relatives should be told to give children time and space to warm up to them.” 

Moreover, according to Web MD here are some tips you can use in this case:

  • Have a new sitter come early. That way, you can play together and give your baby time to warm up to the caregiver before you run out.
  • Be friendly. Your baby will watch you for cues, so show her that you like and trust the new person.
  • Don’t draw out your departure. While your baby will likely cry when you leave to persuade you to stay, when you’re gone she’ll soon give up and start playing with the sitter; prolonging your goodbye will only make her more upset.
  • Don’t give up. Remember, it may take your baby a while to adjust to new childcare settings. So if the first week is rocky, wait to see whether it smooths out.

Gradually introduce new caretakers

Allow your child to get to know a new caretaker or babysitter before they are being left alone with them all of a sudden. Try inviting the new caretaker to play with your child while you are still present until they get used to being in the presence of each other. However, it is important to make sure you are leaving your child with a trustworthy caretaker. 

Additionally, if you plan to leave your child in a new childcare center try visiting the center first and bring your toddler along to play there a few times before you leave them on this new unfamiliar scenario all of a sudden. 

Provide reassurance

It is no secret that toddlers often need to feel comfortable and receive reassurance from their parents or caretakers while they go through this phase. Try being present and provide reassurance when your child meets someone new. 

Stranger Anxiety vs Separation Anxiety

It is common for parents to use both terms indistinctively, but they are used to describe two different situations. 

As we have discussed, stranger anxiety references your child’s “getting used to” unfamiliar faces and people and how intense they perceive this experience varies from one child to another. However, if stranger anxiety becomes very intense or prolonged over time then it can be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder and in this case, you should discuss it with a doctor. 

In contrast, separation anxiety is considered as part of your child’s normal development. In this stage, your child may develop anxiety when they are separated from you or from their caregivers. It usually begins when your child is between 10 to 18 months of age. 

According to the MSD manual, “Children who are 8 to 18 months old often become frightened when they meet new people or visit new places. When separated from their parents or caregivers, particularly when away from home, they feel threatened and unsafe. They look to their parents and caregivers for safety and reassurance”. 

Separation anxiety can continue until your child is about 24 months of age and at this point, they have developed the “object permanence” concept, where they know that something or someone still exists even if they are not able to see it or hear it. 

In addition, separation anxiety is not the same as separation anxiety disorder, which tends to occur in older children and they will typically refuse to go to school or other places because they know they are going to get distanced or separated from you. If the anxiety becomes severe, it can affect your child’s normal development. 

According to the MSD manual, you can try the following strategies: 

  • Encouraging the person caring for the child to create distractions
  • Leaving without responding at length to a child’s crying
  • Remaining calm and reassuring
  • Establishing routines at separations to ease the child’s anxiety
  • Feeding the child and letting the child nap before parents leave (because separation anxiety may be worse when a child is hungry or tired)

Why is this blog about stranger anxiety important?

It is important to be aware of your infant’s behavior and understand it is completely normal and part of their development. However, it can cause a lot of distress in parents and caregivers so knowing how to manage it can make a difference. 

We have discussed a few tips on how to manage your toddler’s stranger anxiety. Remember to be patience, gradually expose your infant to new people and faces to avoid increasing and worsening their anxiety and make sure to provide reassurance when needed. 

If after some time you notice your child’s behavior changes or the anxiety gets worse, not only with unfamiliar people but in other settings, then it is recommended to get a second opinion about your child’s emotional state. 

Please feel free to comment in the comments section below!

Side Note: I have tried and tested various products and services to help with my anxiety and depression. See my top recommendations here, as well as a full list of all products and services our team has tested for various mental health conditions and general wellness.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about stranger anxiety

What age is stranger anxiety?

It has been suggested that the normal age for stranger anxiety is around 8 to 9 months of age and usually tends to decrease by age 2. Stranger anxiety is said to be linked to your infant’s developmental task of recognizing the familiar from the unfamiliar.  

How can I help my child with stranger anxiety?

You can help your child if you practice separating from them gradually, especially if you schedule the separation after your child just had a nap or finished eating. Additionally, you can develop a “goodbye” ritual, where you attempt to always say goodbye with a kiss or a wave, try to leave without making a fuzz about it and if you have left and made a promise, make sure you follow through. 

Also, make sure you have one or two babysitters or caregivers when leaving your child so they can get familiar with them and try to avoid watching scary movies or shows with them because they can learn from your reactions and develop fearful behaviours.  

What is stranger anxiety and when does it develop?

Stranger anxiety is a normal developmental period where babies around 8 to 9 months old start to fear of unfamiliar faces and people holding them or playing with them. This is when it becomes necessary to gradually introduce them to other unfamiliar faces such as friends or family, providing them reassurance (e.g. hugs and kisses)when needed. 

Is Stranger anxiety normal in babies?

Yes, it is considered normal in babies since they are getting introduced and used to unfamiliar faces of your friends and other relatives your baby is not used to see all the time. Separation anxiety is related to the normal development of your child, however, it tends to be confused with separation anxiety, which tends to develop when they are a bit older. 

Why do babies cry around strangers?

Babies cry around strangers when your baby has developed a healthy attachment to familiar people. They prefer familiar adults and might react to strangers by crying or going very still and quiet. This phase is said to peak around 7 to 10 months of age.  

Recommended reading

  • How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler
  • Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, Revised and Updated Edition: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries, and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life–from Toddlers to Teens
  • Parenting Toolbox: 125 Activities Therapists Use to Reduce Meltdowns, Increase Positive Behaviors & Manage Emotions
  • Anxiety Relief for Kids: On-the-Spot Strategies to Help Your Child Overcome Worry, Panic, and Avoidance

What we recommend for curbing Anxiety

Below are some of the services and products we recommend for anxiety

Anxiety Weighted Blankets

  • Anxiety Weighted Blankets are by far the number 1 thing every person who suffers from anxiety should at least try. Anxiety Blankets may improve your sleep, allow you to fall asleep faster and you can even carry them around when chilling at home.

Online Therapy

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Anxiety Course

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Light Therapy

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References

Center for Effective Parenting 

MSD manuals

Helpguide.org

WebMD

Healthline

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