“Stranger anxiety” is something that we can all relate to. No one ever feels perfectly comfortable when they’re around someone, or in a situation, that they’re unfamiliar with. Babies experience it at a far higher intensity than we do.
Take fourteen-month-old Liam, for example. Liam has gotten used to crawling into the living room, where he can expect to see his parents and brother. When he gets there, he likes to stand up and clap his hands, a skill he has just learned. One day, after clapping his hands and laughing, he looks up and notices that Aunt Tina is in the room. He feels embarrassed and crawls to his father’s legs, throwing his arms around them.
Now that he is in familiar territory again, Liam feels comfortable to toddle to Aunt Tina and hold onto her legs, then laugh and toddle away again, in a kind of game. This is how Liam gets used to Aunt Tina, and learns how to get to know a “stranger”.
This skill is vital, as babies will continuously come into contact with people and situations with which they’re unfamiliar. Grandparents, aunts and uncles are all close relatives. However, until they’ve been around each other for a while, a baby will see them as strangers.
Stranger anxiety… in our own bodies
And it’s not only with other people that babies (and even adults) experience stranger anxiety. An unfamiliar change in the baby’s own body – such as physical growth or pain – can trigger that anxiety.
Emma is just 8 weeks old. She experiences a pain in her stomach and feels “stranger anxiety”. She pushes and succeeds at making a bowel movement, which makes things go back to normal and she feels calm again.
But dealing with stranger anxiety is does not always go so smoothly. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be attuned to what our babies are going through, and often parents can unwittingly interfere.
Even your parents are strangers
Gina is the mother of 4-month-old Benjy. When Gina’s parents come to visit one day, her mother picks Benjy up, and he immediately starts crying. Gina’s mother feels hurt and gives Benjy back to her. Gina herself feels ashamed, as if she has personally offended her own mother.
Gina faces a conflict of her own. She has a responsibility as Benjy’s mother, but hasn’t forgotten her responsibility to her own mother. She feels shame and anxiety that she will lose her mother’s love, and angry at Benjy for causing it. Instead of letting Benjy accustom himself to his grandparents, Gina immediately hands him back to her mother.
Interactions like this can teach a baby inadequate ways of dealing with stranger anxiety. Benjy does not learn to trust his grandmother, but rather that he is not allowed to show his anxiety and must pretend to feel affection.
Parents faced with this kind of conflict usually have one of two urges: become angry at the child, or distance themselves from the “stranger”. But both of these are ineffective.
Finding a balance
It is vital that we remember that stranger anxiety is a good thing. Our children must have a sense of vigilance when faced with people and situations they don’t know. After all, you don’t want your child getting into a stranger’s car!
This is why they need to negotiate a balance within themselves. When Liam played a game with Aunt Tina, he was testing her out to see whether she was friend or foe. This healthy instinct will develop into a more complex mechanism, if Liam is given the space he needs.
As parents, we need to acknowledge our own fears, but not let them get in the way of our children learning to deal with this anxiety effectively. Now that you understand what your baby is feeling, knowing how to manage it will become far more natural!