Fear of strangers in children
A fear of unknown people has its roots in evolutionary psychology. Sadly, humans are not always kind to one another, and are quite capable of engaging in the same type of sadistic brutality chimpanzees are famous for. 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.
Fear of crowds
A fear of crowds is typically associated with a social anxiety disorder, which is discussed in our information on children & anxiety.
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 approaches, even in a familiar environment. Some kids may scream loudly or flail around and arch their back when a stranger attempts to hold or comfort them.
These types of fears are more common in foster children or kids with other attachment issues.
Dealing with stranger fears in children:
- Hold your child when introducing her to new people so that she feels more secure.
- Talk about a child’s anxiety with family members, friends and others you meet so that they aren’t offended. Instruct them to approach slowly, maintaining a distance to let a child warm up to them before getting too close or picking a child up. Having them speak slowly and calmly may also reduce a child’s anxiety.
- Rather than avoiding the issue, try to expose your children to situations that will let them interact with new people. Take them to places where crowds or strangers congregate, such as the grocery store, zoo, playplace at a fast food restaurant, or a local park. Gradually get them accustomed to interaction with others in small increments. Be patient, and recognize that it will take time. Don’t rush a child.
- Avoid labeling your child as shy or frightened, which can serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, say something like “sometimes she just needs a little time to warm up,” or “deep down inside she’s a chatterbox.” These more positive-leaning statements still get the point across without trapping a child inside a label.