Understanding Stranger Anxiety

Understanding Stranger Anxiety

Grandma comes to visit when your baby is three or four months old.  They have a great time together – playing, laughing, cuddling.  Then Grandma returns to her distant home.  Later, when your baby is nine or 10 months old, she returns for another visit.  She runs to your baby with outstretched arms and excitedly exclaims, “Grandma’s here!”  Your baby cowers and cries.  He doesn’t want to have anything to do with her.  Grandma is heartbroken, and you are deeply embarrassed.

What you are dealing with is classic “stranger anxiety.”  But despite the term “anxiety,” this is not a psychological problem and is merely a typical side effect of advances in cognitive development.  Starting at about three months of age, a baby develops social awareness.  He gets a sense of himself as a separate entity and becomes capable of engaging in genuine interpersonal interactions.  As the months go by, he also becomes increasingly capable of mentally retaining and appreciating experiences.

Then at about eight or nine months of age, it is like he says to himself, “Wow, this social stuff is great.  It’s a lot of fun, and I want to get good at it.  But I think it’s kind of complicated.  People do things to me, then I have to do things to them, and there are rules about taking turns, etc.  There’s a lot to learn.  So for the next few months, while I’m getting the basics down, I think I’m going to focus on the people I deal with all the time.  Everybody else is just going to have to back off and give me some space.”  Then for the next few months, he will continue to have pleasant interactions with his primary caregivers, but anyone who is not really familiar is likely to get a freak out reaction when they approach.

Like side effects to medication, not all babies experience this side effect to developmental progress.  But if your baby does exhibit stranger anxiety, rest assured that it is perfectly normal and largely temporary.  In a few months, he will become more comfortable and confident in the interpersonal realm, and Grandma will be enthusiastically welcomed back into his social world.

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. Mike”) is a member of the management team at Romp n’ Roll.  After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in human development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also held a position as a researcher with the Harvard Preschool Project.  He may be contacted via e-mail at drmike@romproll.com.

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