Dr. Amir Petrus Dawood
Fear of strangers in children
A fear of unknown people has its roots in evolutionary psychology. In past times strangers posed a potential threat to children. It’s not beyond the scope of human aggression for kids to be targeted by unknown individuals from outside groups. Some kids seem to retain this wariness as part of their nature and are extremely phobic of anyone new. An excessive fear of strangers might also be tied to social anxiety in children.
What causes a fear of strangers
Stranger anxiety commonly emerges very early in life and is sometimes intertwined with or a precursor to separation anxiety. Infants as young as 4 months old may show anxious reactions to strangers, even when their caretakers are around. As a child gets older, they may try to run and hide or bury themselves in their caregivers’ arm or demand to be picked up whenever a stranger comes by. Children with extreme stranger fears may even run off and hide when an unfamiliar person enters the home or become paralyzed with fear if a stranger approach, even in a familiar environment. Some kids may scream loudly or flail around and arch their back when a stranger attempt to hold or comfort them.
Helping your child feel comfortable around strangers
• Don’t ignore or dismiss your child’s fear of strangers. This could make the fear worse.
• Hold your child’s hand or let him sit on your lap when he meets new people.
• Introduce strangers first at home, if possible. Home is where your child feels most comfortable.
• If your child gets very upset with a new person, comfort her and try a different approach like all playing together. You could also move your child slightly away from the new person until she calms down. Then you can try again.
• Take your child’s comfort item (toy or blanket) with you when you’re spending time with new people.
• Stay calm yourself. Your child will pick up on your cues. He’ll be more likely to be calm and confident if he senses that you feel the same way
Taking it slowly
• Be patient. Don’t push your child to go to new people before she’s ready.
• When you introduce your child to someone new, stay with your child. This will reassure him that you’re not going to leave him with unfamiliar people straight away.
• Ask unfamiliar adults, like extended family or adult friends, to wait for a while before they pick up your child.
• For slightly older children, explain to your child who the new person is and what’s happening. For example, explain that the new babysitter is someone you trust. Also say when you’ll be back.
Meeting new people
• Keep introducing your child to new people. The more chances your child must meet new people and discover that they’re safe, the more likely it is that her fear will reduce.
• Show your child that you’re not scared of new people. Greet them warmly with positive body language – smiles, relaxed posture, eye contact and a happy voice.
• Help older children practice some coping strategies for meeting new people – for example, ‘Let’s take some calm breaths together’ or ‘Here’s a big kiss that won’t wear out all day. Can I have one too?’ These simple strategies can help your child feel more confident around unfamiliar people.
• Don’t worry about grown-ups’ feelings. Just tell them that your child is learning to be around stranger
If you’re worried abouthis/ her fear of strangers, you could talk to the following professionals:
• your child’s GP or pediatrician
• your child and family health nurse
• your child’s school counsellor
• a specialist anxiety clinic (available in most states).