When babies are new to the world, they are often happy to be passed from one person’s arms to the next without much fuss as long as they are warm and comfortable. As they get a little older, they begin to fear being passed to unfamiliar arms. As a child grows, a child struggling with anxiety is evident. Normal and predictable fears may emerge. They exhibit a fear of strangers since they are extremely dependent on their caretakers.
The development of stranger anxiety coincides with a child’s budding sense of belonging in the world. Around the time that stranger anxiety begins, the child realises that the relationship they have with the people they spend the most time with (often their parents) is different from the relationship that they have with strangers and other people they do not know well.
It happens as the child develops a healthy attachment to familiar people, especially family. The child prefers known adults, and therefore they might react to strangers by undesirable behaviours like crying or fussing, being very quiet, or hiding.
Stranger anxiety is the distress that children experience when they meet people who are unfamiliar to them.
While stranger anxiety is normal and to be expected, the intensity and duration of the distress experienced by any individual, along with the ways that distress is expressed, may differ.
They may express their distress by “freezing” in your arms. They may remain quiet with a frightened expression until the stranger leaves. Others may express their distress in other ways such as crying, avoiding eye contact, trying to hide their face or clinging tightly to the known adult.
Children might try to hide or express verbally that they want to stay with the parent or want to hold them. Stranger anxiety, in most children, is a normal feature of development and could occur in some form. While in most cases stranger anxiety cannot be avoided.
There are steps that parents can take to minimise the effects of this anxiety during this developmental stage.
Steps to minimise the effects of child struggling with anxiety:
1. Expose the child to new people from an early age
Having the child become familiar with new people early on, can help your child deal with stranger anxiety in the future. From a young age, introduce the child to unfamiliar people in the parents’ presence. Parents should take every opportunity to introduce their children to new people.
2. Avoid pressure
Parents should avoid pressurising their children to “be sociable.” Instead, allow children to become accustomed to new faces and new situations at their own pace.
3. Watch the tone and language
Avoid statements like “don’t be afraid” or “stop crying.” While you may mean well, these statements can make your child feel like their feelings are misunderstood. Instead, stick to phrases that provide empathy (an understanding of their emotional experience) and reassurance (the reminder that they will be okay and you are there for them). For example, “you’re scared by all of these people, so we will stay over here until you feel better.”
4. Don’t ignore your child’s distress
This distress should not be ignored by parents. This distress can provoke anxiety and will lead to more clinginess and anxiety.
Exposure to new people will help them become more comfortable in social settings, which will benefit them, as they grow older.
6. Teach new people to approach techniques to make the situation less threatening for the child
They should be told that the child needs time to mingle with unfamiliar people. Instead of rushing in and picking children up, they should be told to give children time and space to warm up to them. They can try slowly by giving a new toy for the child to accept it. Friends and relatives can also be told to use soft, calm voices, not to force eye contact, and to take things very slowly.
7. Encourage parallel play
This is where a child and stranger are in the same room but doing different activities.
8. Provide reassurance
Children often need reassurance from their parents as they go through this phase. Therefore, parents should try to be available to reassure their children when they face new people. Parents should also provide lots of love and affection through both words and gestures.
9. Remain calm, yourself
Stranger anxiety is stressful for the parent as well. They may find themselves feeling concerned, overwhelmed, anxious and upset by the child’s reaction to strangers. If this is the case, remember that this stage is normal and will likely resolve within a few years or less.
10. Model right
Be calm and positive. A calm and composed parent is a good model for an anxious child. The child is influenced and affected by the parent’s energy, so remaining peaceful can help reduce the child’s anxiety. Take a deep breath and remember that “this has to and will pass.” Support the child in the best way until they’ve outgrown it.
At EuroKids preschool, the EuroMusic program in the PlayGroup and Nursery empowers children to develop verbal and social skills to become more confident. To get preschool admission, visit their nearest school.