What is Stranger Anxiety?

Felicia Dye

Stranger anxiety is distress caused by strangers. The problem is generally recognized as inflicting children primarily in their first two years of life. There typically is not a set list of symptoms. Some children may quietly cling to their parents. Others may cry uncontrollably. Although the reactions vary, most children display some form of stranger anxiety at some point.

Toddlers commonly experience stranger anxiety.
Toddlers commonly experience stranger anxiety.

It is typically understood that children go through phases. At some point in the first year of life, children generally begin to realize that all human are not the same. They begin to recognize that there are some people who show them love and who they can rely on for things such as food and comfort. When this happens, other people may begin to seem scary or intimidating because a child may not understand what he can expect from those people.

Some children with stranger anxiety may quietly cling to their parents.
Some children with stranger anxiety may quietly cling to their parents.

Parents should not be overly worried about a child who displays signs of stranger anxiety. Other adults, such as relatives and babysitters, should likewise not take offense or blame the parents’ child rearing tactics. There is generally no need to seek any sort of professional help for this problem.

Parents are often advised to accept stranger anxiety as normal and to resist forcing the child to readily adapt to strangers. Social skills are typically learned. Adults tend to show preferences toward people and situations that make them feel comfortable. Children also need to be given an opportunity to develop that part of their personalities.

In many cases, stranger anxiety can be countered by allowing a child time to adapt to new people and environments. If a child is taken to a friend's or relative’s home, for example, these loved ones may instantly wish to hold or play with the child. It may be best for the child to remain with a parent for a while, allowing him to get familiar with the people and place.

Stranger anxiety is not generally regarded as sufficient reason to shield a child from all outsiders. This may aggravate the problem more than it helps. Children may not properly develop social skills if they are denied normal social settings.

There may also be situations where a parent cannot avoid forcing the child to cope with his stranger anxiety. For example, a working parent may have no alternative but to leave the child with a babysitter. Parents typically have no need to worry about permanent effects such as trauma or psychological damage. Such situations may actually help the child overcome his distress more quickly.

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