‘Every time someone outside the immediate family approaches my daughter, she hides behind me. Isn’t this fear of stranger a little extreme?’
It isn’t extreme – it’s extremely appropriate, considering your child’s age. Her pronounced fear of strangers, which is known in the child development business as ‘stranger suspicion’, is very common during the toddlers years. Unlike ‘stranger anxiety’, which many infants experience as they approach their first birthdays, stranger suspicion is a more rational fear – though it may not seem rational to you. It’s a kind of thinking child’s paranoia. Because your toddler is capable of more complex thoughts than she used to be, she’s also capable of more complex fears. Burring this suspicious time, every grown-up who isn’t Mummy or Daddy can be viewed as a potential threat a neighbour, a baby-sitter, a friend or associated of yours, even a once-accepted grandparent or other relative may receive the distrust treatment.
But fear probably isn’t the only thing that keeps your toddler hidden behind your legs in the face of strangers; there may be an element of annoyance, too. Consider how you might react towards a stranger, or someone you barely know or recognized, who came right up to you and, without permission or hesitation, patted your head, hugged you, picked you up, or barraged you with silly questions? It’s likely that even for you, a grown-up with a highly developed sense of civility, a civil response would be difficult. For toddlers, whose exposure to the world of manners and courtesy has been limited, mustering a civil response to such an assault is often next to impossible.
There’s no magical cure for stranger suspicion, but it can be expected to eventually come to an end – sooner in some children, later in others. But since it’s impossible, as well as inadvisable, to shelter your toddler from other people completely while she grows out of her suspicious stage, try these tips. They may help her and you cope more effectively with it:
- Cut stranger off at the hug. Try intervening before a stranger makes a move towards your toddler. As with a stranger suspicion animal, a stranger suspicious child will be less fearful if the newcomer approaches her gradually, giving her a chance to size him or her up. Without labeling your child as ‘shy’ or ‘scared’, which could perpetuate her wary behaviour, explain to the hugger-wannabe that she’s more comfortable if people approach her slowly.
- Give physical support. If your toddler wants to be held while in the company of strangers, hold her – for as long as she needs and wants to be held. When and if she’s ready to go it alone, she’ll let you know. In the meantime, offer your reassuring support and understanding unconditionally, and without demeaning comments (‘You’re acting like such a baby’) or teasing (‘You silly girl’).
- Try more exposure. Your toddler will thaw faster if she’s exposed to a wide variety of familiar and unfamiliar people on a regular basis. So take her to the supermarket, shops, museum, zoo, playground, and religious, social and family gatherings. Travel on buses and the underground; go for walks down crowded streets. But be careful not to push your child to interact with the people she’ll met during these outings; always let her take the led. Just being in the midst of strangers is achievement enough for now.
- Don’t push it. Often parents worry more about the rejected stranger’s feelings than those of their child, especially if the ‘stranger’ is a friend or relative they don’t want to see rebuffed. So they may push a reluctant child towards an exuberant and stranger, with tears and/or tantrum the invariable result. Paradoxically, your child will feel more secure – and more open to the advances of strangers – if you handle her fear with respect and understanding than if you press her to overcome it. As for the stranger’s feelings, you can explain that your child’s reaction shouldn’t be taken personally, that she’s at an age when only a parent will do.