Stranger anxiety is a form of distress that children experience when exposed to people unfamiliar to them. Symptoms may include: getting quiet and staring at the stranger, verbally protesting by cries or other vocalizations, and hiding behind a parent. Stranger anxiety is a typical part of the developmental sequence that most children experience. It can occur even if the child is with a caregiver or another person they trust. It peaks from 6 to 12 months  but may recur afterwards until the age of 24 months. As a child gets older, stranger anxiety can be a problem as they begin to socialize. Children may become hesitant to play with unfamiliar children. Children develop such strong bonds to their primary caregivers, that they are likely to feel uneasy around someone who has an unfamiliar face. Foster children are especially at risk, particularly if they experienced neglect early in their life.
Stranger anxiety develops slowly, it does not just appear suddenly. It typically first starts to appear around 4 months of age with infants behaving differently with caregivers than with strangers. They become cautious when strangers are around. Around 7-8 months infants become more aware of their surroundings, so stranger anxiety is more frequent and clearly displayed. As a child’s cognitive skills develop and improve, typically around 12 months, their stranger anxiety can become more intense. They display behaviors like running to their caregiver, grabbing at the caregiver’s legs, or demanding to be picked up.
Dealing with stranger anxiety
Stranger anxiety is a normal, common part of a child’s development. It is not a problem to be treated. There are, however, steps a caregiver can take to help it become less intense.
- Address the issue to the stranger ahead of time, so that they can learn to approach the child slowly, giving him or her time to warm up. The stranger should be informed of the child’s fear, so they are not hurt when the child reacts negatively to them.
- The caregiver can hold the child while introducing him or her to new people.
- Frequently introduce the child to new people. Take them to places where they might interact with strangers.
- Gradually bring new babysitters or child-care workers into the child’s life.
- Above all, the child’s feelings should always be valued more than the strangers'. Patience and respect are very important when dealing with stranger anxiety. A child should never be labeled or ridiculed for being frightened.
While stranger anxiety is a normal part of child development, if it becomes so severe that it restricts normal life professional help might be necessary. Extreme anxiety can affect development, especially if a child is so terrified that they will not explore new environments and hinder themselves from learning.
Stranger terror is extremely severe stranger anxiety that inhibits the child’s normal functioning. Some signs of stranger terror are:
- Fleeing when a person they don’t know enters the home, even if they aren’t interacting with the child.
- Worried facial expressions that are typically seen on an older child
- Being very upset by a stranger’s presence, even in the child’s own home.
- Loud screaming or arching of the back when an unfamiliar person tries to comfort or hold the child.
- Being silent or wary for longer than normal periods with fearful facial expressions.
- Stranger anxiety
- Deterding, Robin R.; William Winn Hay; Myron J. Levin; Judith M. Sondheimer (2006). Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Pediatrics. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. p. 200. ISBN 0-07-146300-3.
- Williams, Sears (August 2011). "bye-bye BABY". Baby Talk 76 (6): 22–24. Retrieved October 2, 2011.
- What to Expect. Toddler Stranger Anxiety.