Thursday, December 23, 2010

Stranger Anxiety: A Holiday Hazard

I asked my daughter-in-law, Julie, the other day if she’d gotten any photos of Nate and Olivia, my 18-month-old twin grandbabies, with Santa Claus. The answer was a resounding “No!” and the reason was because the two of them are at the height of what is called “Stranger Anxiety.” I suggested that maybe they wouldn’t be as frightened as she thinks given that their beloved grandpa (my husband Larry), has a white beard and a very deep voice. Her response was, “Well, then, let’s just have Larry put on a Santa suit!”

We don't have plans to do that, but it got me thinking about Stranger Anxiety as a developmental phenomenon. It may be easy to deal with Santa by simply avoiding him, but it’s not so easy to deal with the anxiety that arises when new relatives visit during the holidays or when a new caregiver is introduced. To refresh my memory of how to deal with Stranger Anxiety, I got down a copy of the book I co-authored with Dr. Susan Goodwyn, Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start, looked the term up in the index and, sure enough, found a list of tips that can help.

  • Insist that people approach slowly and smoothly. Strangers, no matter how well intentioned, who swoop into a young child’s space end up overwhelming his/her with feelings of vulnerability. Because feeling overwhelmed is the exact opposite of feeling in control, the result is fear.
  • Provide a prop. Providing the stranger with your child’s favorite toy or an attractive new toy is another helpful ploy because it works to distract the child from the newness of the visitor and defines him or her as having something positive to contribute.
  • Teach the stranger favorite signs: If your child is using signs from our Baby Signs Program, as we fervently hope is the case, prepare the stranger ahead of time by teaching him or her a few of your child’s current favorites, perhaps tying it to the prop being used. We all feel safer with people who share our language!

  • Enthusiastically introduce the stranger. Get into the habit of introducing people to your child with expressions of sincere delight. This may sound odd if your baby is very young, but even by 4 months babies are sensitive to facial expressions and tone of voice—and by 10 months they are purposefully monitoring these emotional cues to judge what their own reaction should be.
  • Be patient and understanding! Stranger anxiety is a normal part of development and actually indicates the onset of important advances in intelligence and memory. It means that children are truly thinking about what’s happening, comparing faces with those they remember, and figuring out how to regulate their own emotions—in this case by avoiding the stranger. If you can think of Stranger Anxiety as a manifestation of progress in your child’s development, it will be easier to be patient.

Stranger Anxiety is one of the earliest and most universal forms of fear that young children experience. What some other common fears are and tips for dealing with them will be the subject of future postings. If you’re desperate for that information right now, check out Chapter 7 our book Baby Hearts entitled “Monsters and Meanies: Addressing Fear and Anxiety.”

Happy New Year!


Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.

Co-founder, the Baby Signs Program


Professor Emeritus, UC Davis

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