Stranger Anxiety In Toddlers & Babies: How To Handle Fear Of Strangers

What To Do When Your Child Has A Serious Case Of Stranger Anxiety

January 13, 2021 Updated May 6, 2021

stranger-anxiety-babies-toddlers (1)
Sydney Bourne/Getty Images

Does your toddler freak out while in the presence of a new human? Do they even run away from a non-stranger like Grandma? Your toddler’s shy behavior might confuse you — especially if they’ve been all too happy to be passed from one person’s arms to the next without much fuss when they were a baby. But as babies get older, it’s normal for them to have stranger anxiety when passed to someone unfamiliar. It’s all part of your baby learning to differentiate between who they like (you) and who they don’t (strangers). Of course, this sort of anxiety in babies and toddlers can make parenting even trickier. How’s a mama supposed to make a quick Target run if her little one freaks out over every person they see? Don’t panic; this phase doesn’t last forever.

While some little ones might outgrow stranger anxiety once they reach eight months old, it typically resurfaces at 12 to 15 months, and might even stick around until 24 months before decreasing. Why does your kid go from running into Grandma’s arms to running away screaming from her? Experts aren’t sure. Although they will agree that it’s totally normal behavior (make sure to tell Grandma that).

If you’re encountering stranger anxiety in your toddler or baby, here’s what you need to know to help handle their fear of strangers.

What is stranger anxiety?

Stranger anxiety describes the uncomfortable feeling your baby experiences in the presence of those who are not familiar to them. It’s no secret that babies prefer their mamas (and who could blame them?). Stranger anxiety in babies is usually expressed at around seven to 10 months old. However, this fear could appear in infants as young as three months. Not only is this part of growing up, but thankfully it doesn’t last more than a couple of months.

Parents might then experience a brief reprieve before their stranger danger rears its ugly head once more at around 12 months, dissipating again between 15 and 24 months. It happens around the time a child realizes there is order to this world, i.e. they have a relationship to the people they spend the most time with… like you!

As a result, they also understand they have a different connection to strangers, which makes them feel anxious. This explains why they crave the familiar and want to stick like glue to you while running, kicking and screaming from the unfamiliar.

How can you hold space for your child’s fear of strangers?

Ignoring or dismissing your child’s fear of strangers could only make things more distressing for them. It’s important to honor what your little one is experiencing. Every child will react differently to strangers — some kids might not experience stranger anxiety at all — and that’s perfectly OK. Recognize your kid’s hesitancy when it comes to strangers allows you to hold space for their fears and reassure them in a way that doesn’t diminish their feelings.

What are some ways to reassure your child?

A little reassurance goes a long way. If your toddler appears upset in the company of strangers, do your best to let them know everything is OK. You might even want to stay within arm’s reach so that your child knows they are “safe” to engage with this new person. It’s also a good idea to reassure the “stranger” — whether that’s Grandma or your neighbor — that your child is experiencing stranger anxiety. That way, they don’t feel rejected and can approach your child from a more informed and compassionate perspective.

How should you introduce your child to strangers?

A gradual warm-up to new people is a good way to help ease your child’s anxiety. For example, instead of dropping off your toddler off at the daycare or a new babysitter‘s home, you might want to have your child tour daycare first and meet their caregivers. Alternately, you could invite the babysitter over to your house so you little one can become familiar with them first. You might even have them play a game or two to establish a connection. This warming up strategy can also be used for family members like Grandma or Grandpa, who might also be getting the “stranger danger” treatment.

To help make this transition easier for kids, while introducing them to a new person, have them sit in your lap or hold their hand during the interaction. If you can, present the stranger to the child in their home. A kid’s room is their safe space and will help them better connect to the new person. Keep your child’s lovey close by when meeting strangers too, and keep calm, Mama. Kids can sense anxiety, so when you’re confident it reassures them that everything is going to be OK.

So, taking it slow is a solid idea?

In a word, yes. Stranger anxiety is a slow process that requires a great deal of compassion and patience. Just remember that you’re entitled to a night off, especially if you have parents who are more than willing to look after your little one. But your toddler can’t exactly take a night off from their stranger anxiety. Keep that thought centered — it will help you remember that it’s important not to push your toddler or baby into being with strangers until they’re ready.

Stranger anxiety can be frustrating and, unfortunately, can take several months to work through. But with the right amount of empathy and love, your toddler will be ready for a babysitter in no time!