Stranger Anxiety

Stranger anxiety is an important behavioral development seen in babies where they get upset and distressed on interacting with someone whom they are not familiar to [1,7]. Being an integral part of their emotional and cognitive development, this behavioral gesture is an  indication of the baby’s skill in distinguishing the known from the unknown.

How long does stranger anxiety in babies last

Stranger anxiety starts to develop between five and seven months of age, peaking by the twelfth month. Gradually lessening after the eighteenth month, it goes away by the second birthday of your toddler [1,4, 5]. It has been observed that girls display this trait at an earlier age than boys [8].

Signs of stranger anxiety

  • Crying loudly [5]
  • Being fussy [5]
  • Moving away from the stranger [8]
  • Hiding their face [8]
  • Looking fearfully at the unknown person [5]
  • Running into the arms of the caregiver to seek solace
  • Trying to soothe themselves in different ways [8]

Certain factors responsible for triggering the anxious behavior in children includes:

  • Confronting an unknown face in the absence of their caregiver or parents.
  • Finding the new visitor strange in behavior and appearance [8].
  • The new visitor showing affection towards the child by suddenly touching or cuddling him [8].
  • Meeting an unfamiliar person in a familiar surrounding (like their home) [8].
  • Toddlers on being introduced to their playmates in the preschool or daycare get apprehensive while mingling with the new circle [5].

However, this anxiety takes the form of stranger terror when children get extremely agitated and panicked on seeing a new person. They display their annoyance through severe screaming coupled with back arching also having a fearful and wary look in the presence of the stranger. Consult your pediatrician or any experienced professional in such extreme cases as it may hamper your child’s all round development.

Psychology of stranger anxiety

Several research and studies have been carried out to understand the psychology behind stranger anxiety. By the seventh month, the infants develop their comfort zones, feeling secured with someone whom they regularly see. Therefore, on confronting an unknown person, they become unhappy and anxious.

Psychologists have further found that stranger anxiety depends on the temperament of the infant. The attachment a child has with his family is one of the responsible factors. Studies have shown that children in orphanages mingled well with strangers who were affectionate towards them. On the other hand, those who had great bonding with their parents got more distressed on seeing unfamiliar faces [9, 10].

How to help babies overcome stranger anxiety

  • Be empathetic to the child: If your baby is too anxious about the new visitor who has just stepped in, try to care and comfort him by ensuring that everything is perfectly fine [2].
  • Appreciate their feelings: It is important to understand the mindset of babies. If they are not willing to adjust, give them the required time and things will gradually fall in place.
  • Deal with patience: Do not lose patience and force your kid to socialize. Rather make him more accustomed to new or unknown faces so that he gradually gets to know them and sheds off his fear [3,5].
  • Be present: If a new babysitter or caregiver is coming to look after your child then it is necessary for you to be present initially and allow your child to get to know the new visitor. Hold your child while acquainting him with the stranger to give him assurance and comfort. Leaving him to adjust with the new person all by himself  may create adverse effects [2,5].
  • Let the visitors know about your child’s temperament: In order to avoid any embarrassment, inform the visitors about your baby’s likes and dislikes. You may also ask them to give the little one some time to get familiar with them rather than trying to cuddle or hug them at the first meeting [2,3].
  • Cooperation from the visitor: Instead of directly approaching the child, the visitor can make his presence felt at a slow pace through a game of peek-a-boo. He should also appreciate and acknowledge the child’s gesture from a distance rather than trying to get close to him at the very first go [8].

Infants develop a world of their own, and any unfamiliar face seems to be an intruder into their cozy, comfortable surroundings. Therefore, they are to be handled sensitively to help them overcome their initial fears and apprehensions paving towards a healthy development.

[ref]
  1. http://www.babycenter.com/6_your-5-month-old-week-1_1141.bc
  2. http://www.whattoexpect.com/toddler-behavior/toddler-stranger-anxiety.aspx
  3. http://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/your-babys-stranger-anxiety
  4. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/pediatrics/symptoms_in_infants_and_children/separation_and_stranger_anxiety.html
  5. http://www.ocd.pitt.edu/Files/PDF/Foster/27758_ocd_stranger_anxiety.pdf
  6. http://www.healthofchildren.com/S/Stranger-Anxiety.html
  7. http://www.nasponline.org/resources/intonline/anxiety_huberty.pdf
  8. http://www.depauw.edu/learn/lab/publications/documents/infant%20development/2005_Infant_development_Stranger_anxiety.pdf
  9. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/06/science/new-research-overturns-a-milestone-of-infancy.html
  10. http://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html [/ref]