If your child is afraid of unfamiliar people, they’re not alone. This is a common experience for children.
It’s natural for young children to be afraid of strangers. This reaction is an important milestone that helps children learn to trust their instincts and get a sense of their environment.
Still, you may find it stressful to observe a child in distress. There are many ways you can help them cope with stranger anxiety and learn to build trust while continuing to rely on their instincts.
Research from 2018 indicates that babies and young children prefer familiar people.
Stranger anxiety, or the fear of new people, is a common experience as your baby forms a healthy attachment to you, says Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist in Chicago, Illinois.
“Stranger anxiety is linked to an infant’s developmental process of differentiating between familiar and unfamiliar objects. It commonly begins around 8 to 9 months and typically stops by 2 years.”
Other research suggests that 60% of children with stranger anxiety don’t develop a social anxiety disorder. In other words, this is an expected part of growing up.
Examples of stranger anxiety
Every child reacts differently to strangers. Some signs of distress may include:
- appearing to “zone out”
- avoiding eye contact
- clinging to an adult
- hiding behind someone’s legs
- physical symptoms of anxiety
- refusal to go somewhere
- running away to another room
- staying silent
- temper tantrums
Separation anxiety occurs when a child feels afraid of being away from someone they know. For example, your child may have a tantrum when you encourage them to sleep alone.
Stranger anxiety is specifically related to unfamiliar people. It does not relate to separation, since it can happen even if a trusted adult is present. For example, when you open the door for your new neighbor, your child may hide in the other room.
Sometimes, though, stranger anxiety and separation anxiety occur together. For example, your child may have a temper tantrum when you take them to school (separation anxiety), and they may also avoid interacting with their new peers (stranger anxiety).
If possible, it’s best to take things slow and give your child a chance to adjust.
1. Building positive association
Before your child meets a new person, talk about them in a positive way, says Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Niantic, Connecticut.
“Show your child pictures of them on your cell phone before they actually meet, and tell positive stories that you have about this person in your life. This helps your child have a positive association with this new person before meeting them,” she explains.
Try an art project
It may be helpful to encourage your child to make artwork for a new person as a welcoming gesture, says Ziskind.
“Giving your child crayons and stickers to make a card can help your child build a positive mental association. Making art for the person they are about to meet can reduce anticipation, too,” she says.
2. Telling them what to expect
You may find it helpful to give your child hints about what’s coming up.
For example, you might say:
- “Your cousin has brown hair, too.”
- “At Jane’s house, it smells like roses.”
- “At the doctor’s office, he will ask you to sit on a tall chair.”
3. Making the new person aware
You can let a new person know that your child experiences some anxiety around new faces. You can gently remind them to take their time and give your child plenty of space.
4. Soothing your own anxiety
You’re introducing a new person to your child and want it to go well, so it’s typical for you to feel some anxiety. But evidence suggests that children can pick up on the feeling of those around them.
If possible, it’s best to try to stay calm and keep your own anxiety under control.
5. Meeting in familiar places
When meeting new people, your child may feel the most comfortable in places they’re familiar with. If they’re a little older, this could be somewhere like their favorite park or restaurant.
6. Providing reassurance
There are many ways to signal safety to a child and talk about anxiety, like speaking in a calm voice and using reassuring statements.
You could try something like, “John is at the door. Let’s take some deep breaths together, then go say hello. It’s OK to take your time and get to know him. I sometimes get anxious around new people, too. I’m so proud of you for being brave.”
Things to avoid:
- rushing your child
- pressuring them to open up
- forcing your child to hug or kiss anyone
- dismissing their feelings
- invalidating their experience with phrases like “Don’t be scared!” or “I already told you they were coming over” or “What’s wrong with you?”
7. Getting on the same level (literally)
If you’re at home, you may find it useful to have people sit on the floor so that everyone is at your child’s height. You could try coloring together, playing with your child’s favorite toy, or just sitting around and talking for a while.
8. Trying parallel play
If your child doesn’t want to interact, you might see if you can encourage parallel play. This is where a child and stranger are in the same room but doing different activities, says Ziskind.
“Your child might be playing with their toy kitchen, and the stranger might be coloring on the floor nearby in the same room to build trust. Parallel play can create a sense of safety,” she explains.
9. Bringing post-pandemic compassion
Many children are coming out of intermittent social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They may not have had many opportunities for socialization in the last couple of years. Understandably, anxiety around strangers may have increased, says Ziskind.
“If your child has just been around you for the last 2 years, know that it’s “[typical]” for them to have anxiety when meeting new people. They haven’t been able to see others and read facial features as well, due to masks,” she explains.
10. Working with a therapist
If your child is experiencing significant distress, you may find it helpful to work with a therapist who specializes in childhood development. You can even explore more “fun” modalities, like art therapy or play therapy.
For children, anxiety around strangers is part of their natural development process.
You can support them by building up positive associations in advance, providing reassurance, and giving them plenty of space and time to warm up to someone new.
If your child has significant anxiety, consider reaching out to a therapist for support. You can also consider browsing our list of top anxiety books for parents or caregivers and their children.