You take your toddler to family gatherings, excited for them to see everyone, show them the cuteness that you know and love, but instead of that bundle of cuteness you have a child attached to your leg refusing to say hi, acknowledge or look at any of the family members in the room. It can feel a little embarrassing when you know they were as excited to see your toddler as you were to show them off.

BUT, did you know this is normal behavior for young toddlers?

It is normal for babies to be fearful or weary of people other than their primary caregiver, that they have formed a healthy attachment to. Even if they have met that person a time or two in the past.

This fear of strangers can continue up until about 2 or 3 years of age. Some children will be mildly uncomfortable, whereas others will show more fear and upset. Their level of upset or distress is often related to their personality and temperament.

It can be helpful to remember that stranger anxiety is a good thing, an adaptive response. We don’t want our children to feel comfortable going up to just anyone. As they grow we teach them stranger danger.


Signs of stranger anxiety:

  • Crying
  • Fussiness
  • Appearing shy
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Running away
  • Clinging to caregiver

Stranger anxiety should not be confused with separation anxiety, which is about having a strong preference for, not liking being away from, their primary caregivers (mom, dad, babysitter). Separation anxiety happens when a baby gains a sense of object permanence – around 6 -9 months of age. Object permanence is when they begin to understand that objects and people exist even if they are not in the room or in their sight. Babies and young toddlers don’t have a good concept of time, so when someone is out of sight, even for short periods of time, it can feel like forever, which can lead to upset when away from their beloved caregiver. This can cause difficulties at bedtime, school drop-off or when a parent leaves the house for a bit.

Separation anxiety and stranger anxiety can go hand in hand, but not always.

What can parents do?

  • Expose your child to new social settings and new people from early on. We know this was hard during Covid, but now that this is improving there is more opportunity to take babies and toddlers out and about.
  • Introduce unfamiliar people slowly. Don’t force them to hug, kiss or interact. Give them time and wait for them to be ready to interact at their own pace. Pressuring a child to interact can make their fear worse as well as teaches them that they do not have autonomy over what they do and don’t do.
  • When introducing a new person, like a new babysitter, show how comfortable you are with them. How much you trust them. It can also be a good idea to just have the person play near your toddler until they feel comfortable to start interacting on their own.
  • Don’t talk young children out of their fear. A child’s worries or fears are always valid. When we try and talk them out of them they can feel dismissed and it really doesn’t help those feelings disappear. Instead we can provide empathy, understanding and reassurance.
  • Don’t apologize for your child if they don’t feel like interacting with people. They have done nothing wrong. By apologizing for them it will make they feel shame for something that is a normal stage of development.
  • Remember that large gatherings can be intimidating for many adults, so imagine how it feels for a toddler.

We hope this helps you understand the stranger anxiety phase and what you can do. Remember stranger anxiety is a normal response for the first 2 – 3 years of life. There is no magic wand that will make the stranger anxiety go away. But with support and reassurance from parents and caregivers it will improve. If this anxiety is lasting for a long time after that it might help to reach out for more support so that you can receive the tools you need to help your child cope.

Postive Parenting Coaches

How to help a child with stranger anxiety.