Fear of strangers: the basics

Fear of strangers is very common. It’s a normal stage in child development.

It happens as your baby develops a healthy attachment to familiar people – like you. Because babies prefer familiar adults, they might react to strangers by crying or fussing, going very quiet, looking fearful or hiding.

Fear of strangers usually becomes more intense at around 7-10 months of age. It can last a few months or continue for much longer. It usually passes somewhere between 18 months and 2 years.

For example, a 10-month-old baby who has been going to child care since she was 6 months old might get upset if there’s a new carer at the centre. She might cry, bury her head in her mother’s neck or scream when the carer tries to take her from her mum or dad.

Helping with fear of strangers: what you can do

Although fear of strangers is part of normal development for babies and young children, there are things you can do to help your child feel less upset.

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 has to 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 and a happy voice.
  • Help older children practise 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 strangers.

Fear of strangers in children over two years

Most children’s fear of strangers starts to pass by about two years, but it isn’t unusual for older children to be afraid of strangers also.

One way to help with worries about unfamiliar people is to work on building your child’s independence. If your child feels more independent, he might also feel more confident around strangers.

Here are some tips to help with independence:

  • Let your child do things for herself, like feeding herself, exploring new play environments and entertaining herself with toys.
  • Give your child lots of new experiences and introduce him to new faces. With time, he’ll realise that nothing bad will happen.
  • Try not to rush in to solve problems, and give your child a chance to work out solutions for herself.
  • Encourage your child to be responsible for some simple family chores – for example, putting things in the supermarket trolley, checking the letterbox or setting the table.
  • Help your child learn to settle for sleep away from home. This will help if you need to leave your child at naptime or bedtime – for example, at child care or for a sleepover at a relative’s house.

Getting help for fear of strangers

Extreme fear of strangers might lead to social anxiety when your child is older. So it’s worth talking to a health professional if your young child’s fear of strangers is really intense, or if it doesn’t reduce even when there are no unfamiliar adults around.

Also, if your child’s fear of strangers isn’t getting any better by the time he’s two years old, or it’s getting worse, you might want to think about seeking professional help in addition to encouraging your child’s independence.

And it might also be a good idea to seek help if there’s a family history of anxiety, because your child might be showing early signs of anxiety.

You know your child best. If you’re worried about her fear of strangers, you could talk to the following professionals:

  • your child’s GP or paediatrician
  • your child and family health nurse
  • your child’s school counsellor
  • a specialist anxiety clinic (available in most states).
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