Around 5 or 6 months of age, many babies begin to develop a fear of strangers. This fear tends to peak in intensity between 8 and 10 months and then gradually diminishes by around 15 or 16 months. However, some toddlers remain somewhat afraid of strangers and some may appear shy all the way through childhood. The amount of fear of strangers that a baby or child experiences depends mostly on that youngster’s genes. A child with loving parents and patient caretakers can be very fearful of strangers just because he or she is a fearful child in general. On the other hand, a child may be extremely friendly to everyone even during the peak “stranger anxiety” phase simply because he or she has inherited an extroverted, people-loving, confident nature.
Many psychologists see “stranger anxiety” as a positive developmental stage in infants. It indicates that the baby can distinguish between primary caregivers like Mommy, Daddy, Grandma, Nanny and so on – and actual strangers or non-family members. This is an important skill for intimate bonding later on. The ability to really care who hugs you is healthy and a precursor for strong intimate relationships in adulthood. However, a baby needn’t demonstrate terror of strangers in order to indicate his ability to distinguish loved ones from strangers; showing a preference for loved ones is enough of an indication that Baby knows the difference. If your baby cries hard when being handed over to a stranger, however, try to see it as a positive sign, even though it is temporarily upsetting for that stranger.
Sometimes the “stranger” is Grandma or Grandpa. If the baby doesn’t see relatives on a regular basis, he or she may consider these people to be strangers. This can be insulting or hurtful for relatives. However, your job is to do what is best for the baby – not for the adult. Therefore, don’t force an upset baby to stay in the arms of a stranger just to try to make the stranger feel better. Rather, take the baby back to your own arms and tell the other person, “Baby likes to look at you from here – he’s very attached to Mommy right now. In a few months he’ll be asking for YOU to pick him up!” If the other person doesn’t like this reality, don’t worry – he or she will get over it eventually. Meanwhile, you have taught your baby that you will respond to his or her cries and meet his or her needs. This helps the baby develop trust in the environment. When the baby has lots of trust, he or she will have an easier time trusting people appropriately.
Just the Right Amount of Fear
As the baby grows, you will want him to be appropriately fearful of strangers. In other words, you don’t want your preschooler running up to strange men in the park and playing with them. You want them to feel appropriate levels of comfort with known people and appropriate levels of discomfort with unknown people. It can be tricky to teach children to have “just the right amount” of fear and not to have excessive, paranoid or insecure feelings that make them uncomfortable all the time. Here are some tips on how to “stranger proof” your child without terrorizing him or her:
- tell your child that most adults are very nice and that it is safe to say “hello” to people who say “hello” to them. However, tell them that they don’t need to talk to adults who they don’t know beyond returning a greeting.
- tell your child to come straight to you or their caregiver if an adult seems to want to talk to them. Just tell them that you or the caregiver needs to meet the adult first.
- tell your child never to go anywhere with an adult they don’t know but DO NOT tell them about how adults can hurt and kill children and so on. Instead, provide adequate supervision for your very young child; do not leave small children out of your sight for even a moment.
- when your child is a little older and is ready to go to school, explain that adults don’t need to talk to children and if an adult tries to talk to them, they should not answer, but instead quickly get themselves to a safe adult (one they know!).
As stated earlier, some children are afraid of strangers because they have a fearful nature. They just don’t like meeting new people. When introduced to an adult by their parents, they hide behind Mom’s skirt and suck their thumb (if they’re little) or stare silently (if they’re older). If your child is like this, you might try a treatment of Bach Flower Therapy. The remedies “Mimulus” and “Cerato” can be helpful. A Bach Flower Practitioner can recommend a specific mixture of remedies best suited for your child. These harmless preparations can help ease fear of people out of the child’s system over time. Social skills groups can also build up a skill repetoire that helps children feel more confident in social situations. If the fear is interfering with the child’s life, a trip to a child psychologist can help reduce anxiety and build healthy coping patterns that will serve the child well throughout life.