Stranger anxiety in toddlers is not always a bad thing. Here’s what you need to know to help young children when they’re afraid of strangers.
“Let’s meet up for lunch,” I told a friend. My husband, toddler, and I were in her area, and we wanted her to finally meet the little guy.
Except the minute he saw her, he cried. And I mean cried. He turned his body away from her and wrapped his arms around my neck. Even when he finally settled down, he never warmed up or showed his cheerful and friendly personality.
Suffice to say, I felt horrible. Nothing about my friend would’ve warranted tantrums like that from anyone, yet here was my toddler freaking out. I felt like I had done something wrong to have him behave this way, and equally embarrassed and awkward for my friend who bore the brunt of his reaction.
And I wondered, How could I help him feel less anxious around people he doesn’t know?
What to do about stranger anxiety in toddlers
Many parents secretly delight when we see our kids charm nearby adults. When kids come up with a funny retort, give grandparents a tight squeeze, or say “hi” to passing strangers in the grocery store.
But when kids try to get away from any place full of people—when strangers can’t even come close to them without causing a panic—we worry.
You hate to say it, but you’re even a little embarrassed that this is the impression he leaves with your relatives and friends. You’re dreading family gatherings, figuring you’re going to be comforting a crying toddler for most of the time.
And it’s especially stressful when you’re trying to be patient and loving but a family member is annoyed. They might even outright say he’s spoiled because you’re holding him close.
For every parent discouraged by her child’s behavior, read on. I learned so much about stranger anxiety in toddlers that not only gave me actionable tips moving forward, but calmed my nerves as well. Take a look:
1. Consider your toddler’s point of view
At our old apartment, my kids and I would often ride the elevator with well-meaning, fellow neighbors trying to make conversation. But I noticed that all those conversations were geared toward my kids, and only my kids. Worse, the adults would talk in that unnaturally sing-song way often reserved for little ones.
Now, consider a child’s points of view. Here’s this adult who hops on an elevator and only addresses him, not his parent. He feels singled out by this person he hardly knows and only sees once in a while.
And he might even be asked ridiculous questions no adult would ever ask another stranger, again in that sing-song voice, like How old are you? and That’s a neat T-shirt!
Again, these are well-meaning, friendly adults making neighborly talk. But from your child’s point of view, it feels awkward, confusing, and even alarming. If he tends to cling to your leg, you can see a big reason why. In fact, you might even praise him for his courage with handling these situations.
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2. Stranger anxiety isn’t always bad
As hard as it is to comfort your child’s tears over what should be a friendly social interaction, rest assured that stranger anxiety isn’t bad. In fact, consider it a survival mechanism—after all, kids aren’t supposed to go to any new person.
Think of it this way: your toddler knows who’s safe and has a strong preference and healthy attachment to those he knows well.
3. Every child is different
We’ve all heard that advice, and the same applies with how children experience social anxiety. Some kids take to strangers easily, while others prefer their own space and familiarity… and both are okay. Think about the variety of personalities in adults and you’ll see that kids are no different.
Some are cautious and will learn to trust others at their own pace. And even extroverted kids who normally take to anyone have their days, too—we just don’t always see it. Similarly, just because your toddler is anxious around strangers at times, doesn’t mean he always is or will forever be.
4. Don’t apologize for your toddler
Many of us are mortified not because of how our kids behave, but how others might take to their behavior. But don’t apologize for your child or feel like he hurt a stranger’s feelings. He isn’t being rude, and he certainly didn’t do anything wrong.
This is absolutely not his fault, and you have nothing to apologize for on his behalf.
We’re quick to apologize or chalk it up to “Oh, he’s shy,” just because our kids don’t say “hi” to everyone. The worst part? He might grow up with an unnecessary “shyness” label that makes him even more reserved than if he didn’t have this label to begin with.
5. Your priority is your toddler
No one wants to step on toes or seem rude, and we hate to imagine what others might think about our kids and how we’re contributing to their stranger anxiety.
And a lot of our own frustration stems from the hassles of comforting a child upset over what we think should be simple social etiquette. Or it comes from wishing they had a more outgoing personality that matches our own—or at least makes life easier.
But it isn’t about you and making your life easier, and it’s certainly not about other people. It’s about your child, and equipping him with the tools to overcome new situations. And if other people take his behavior personally, that says more about them than you or your toddler.
He needs you to advocate for him and his personal space. To not force him to say “hi” to others, or give hugs and kisses. I promise, your child will learn to be friendly more by watching your social cues and the way you behave than by forcing him to say “hi” to someone.
Steps to overcome stranger anxiety in toddlers
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While you can’t force your toddler to take to strangers, you can certainly equip him with the tools to manage his feelings and social skills. For instance:
- Give him a lovey or blanket. To help him feel calm in new environments, give him a lovey like this one or familiar item he can take with him.
- Help him divert attention. A simple trick he can do when adults make conversation is to divert the attention to a toy. If an adult tries to make conversation and he feels overwhelmed, let him know he can hold up his stuffed animal. More often than not, the adult will then focus the attention on the stuffed animal rather than on him.
- Take him to a quiet place. If you see him feeling overwhelmed, make it a routine to take him to a quiet spot to calm him down. If you have people over at your house, remind him that he can always go to his room if the intensity gets too much.
- Say “maybe later.” Instead of labeling him as “shy,” simply tell the adult “He doesn’t feel like it right now…” or “Maybe later.”
- Stay close. No, you are not spoiling him by staying close when he feels separation anxiety about unfamiliar people. He’ll be more likely to warm up to others on his own and transition well if you stay close by, especially in the beginning.
- Enroll him in half-day preschool, daycare, or classes. Regular exposure, especially to the same primary caregivers, can make a difference in his behavior. Expect an adjustment period (like crying at drop-offs), but being around his caretakers consistently can help.
It’s hard to see your toddler have a fear of strangers (or sometimes, even familiar faces).
When social situations like eye contact or a greeting from a stranger sends him scurrying behind your legs. And admittedly, many of us are biased toward outgoing, friendly kids to the detriment of the majority who take more time to warm up.
But learning more about stranger anxiety in toddlers can help you feel less distress and more patient about his behavior. For one thing, his anxiety isn’t necessarily bad—it’s a normal response with his social development, especially during these toddler and preschool years.
Every child is also different. Accept your child’s fear instead of trying to change him, or worse, feeling disappointed. Don’t feel the need to apologize on his behalf. He’s not being rude, and it’s not his fault.
Consider his point of view as well, and you can see why he would cry and scream the way he does. And finally, he is your priority—not other people’s feelings or opinions, and not even how inconvenient his behavior might be.
The more we understand about stranger anxiety, the more we can see how normal, common, and even healthy it is. So, if your child cries the minute he sees your friend at lunch, rest assured it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
Get more tips:
- 4 Things You Shouldn’t Say about Other People’s Children
- What to Remember when You’re Losing Your Temper with Your Toddler
- 9 Useful Techniques for Dealing with Anxiety in Children
- Why We Need to Stop Labeling Kids
- 6 Mistakes with Socializing Your Child
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