Parenting has always been stressful, but now more than ever it seems. So my heart goes out to moms and dads who struggle with the issue of how to keep their children safe without instilling undue fear – fear that can lead a child to heightened levels of stranger anxiety.
Stranger anxiety is a normal part of development that occurs in most children around the age of 6 or 7 months, and it may last until the child’s first birthday or so.
At this stage, children are very attached to their primary providers, and they may experience considerable distress when in the company of people with whom they are unfamiliar. Often, they show this distress by hiding behind their parents, quietly peeking at the stranger and loudly protesting if he or she makes any overtures.
When this kind of behavior is seen in older children, I often wonder about angry feelings they may be experiencing. Are those aggressive feelings being projected outward and making the world seem like a very unsafe place?
This is typical of what you find in children who are terrified of the boogey man, burglars, ghosts, etc. As one savvy boy put it, “I think that’s just my mad feelings coming back to get me.”
So, what do you do?
First and foremost, keep your cool. Children are masters at picking up on their parents’ anxiety.
Very matter-of-factly reinforce the importance of not talking to strangers. But then, prepare the child in advance for situations where contact with strangers will be unavoidable – like at the airport, as an example.
You can say things like: “Mommy and daddy will be with you and keep you safe.” Or if a school field trip is planned, you might offer: “When you go to the museum, there will be strangers, but you’ll be with your teacher. And the school staff will keep you safe.”
Also, remind your child about police officers, whose job is to keep us safe.
If you suspect your child is projecting his/her own anger, encourage the use of words for feelings. “You seem angry; I wish you could tell me about it.” If your child seems scared of strangers to the point of panic, seek professional help.