At around 8 months old, a child develops an ability to distinguish between what is familiar and what is not familiar. This is the beginning of a child’s ability to cautiously evaluate people and objects. This natural skill allows them to start making decisions about what is safe and what is not. The first signs of this skill are typically observed when a child shows obvious uneasiness around a stranger or someone for whom he or she is not familiar with. This is why we use the phrase, Stranger Anxiety.
When introducing a child to someone new or someone that they just don’t remember, allow the child the opportunity to exercise this naturally occurring process. Most of us have an immediate desire to suggest that the child is being silly or mistakenly cautious. We may reassure the child that everything is fine and quickly place the child in the arms of this unfamiliar face to speed up the process of familiarity. This is a poor choice because it tends to teach the child not to trust their initial evaluation. Without coddling the child, we can take advantage of this opportunity to exercise the child’s ability to make the assessments more and more effectively. Instead of leaning towards, “You can trust this guy because I said so”, we should communicate, “I understand your anxiety. We can work through it together.” We can contribute greatly to a child’s development in this area by giving them the time to become familiar with the unfamiliar at their own reasonable pace while providing a sense of comfort and safety.
Stranger anxiety happens often in child care settings when a child is being dropped off. As a parent in a rush to get to work, we need to plan additional time to help our child transition to the caregiver; all involved will likely have a less stressful day when this is done. Teachers or daycare workers should go out of their way to provide an opportunity to do a meet and greet before the first day, to give the child time to familiarize his or herself with the environment, caregivers and other children. Parents should strive to ensure that this opportunity is provided and take full advantage of it. Additionally, as a caregiver, do not force yourself on a child; give them the time to warm up to you gradually by engaging them in an activity. Parents should not be embarrassed when their child clings to them and seems scared of someone, reassure your child calmly and explain to the person that your child just needs a little time to become familiar with them. The difference this makes on a child is enormous.
There is good news regarding stranger anxiety, a child outgrows this stage usually by age two, especially if their feelings have been validated. It is in this stage that we can recognize how the brain, mind and social-emotional behavior develop in unison.
Myers, D. G. (2013). Psychology. (10th ed.). New York City: Worth Publishing Company.