It’s a Friday night and you have plans as a couple, so you drop your 18-month-old off at your mom for a sleepover – something you’ve done regularly since she was born.
Only this time it’s different, instead of happily hugging her gran as soon as she sees her, your child is clinging to you in tears and refusing to even look in her direction.
And that’s not the only person she’s suddenly gone off of – everyone from well-known friends to family is suddenly being snubbed by your growing tot. Welcome to the phase called toddler anxiety – but don’t worry, it’s not forever.
Developing a sense of individuality
Having your usually uber-chilled tot morph into a decidedly unfriendly mite can make for some awkward social situations, but your little one has probably already gone through a bout of separation anxiety before this, and this repeat performance between the ages of 12 and 24 months are all a part of growing up and realising she’s her very own person.
"Normally a child will experience a sense of ‘stranger danger’ when they are very young and are making sense of their world. This can seem to intensify before they reach 10 months or so, and can continue for a few months following," says educational psychologist Lloyd Ripley-Evans.
"The reason young children develop this is often that they are becoming more comfortable with their relationships with their primary carers, and they begin to develop a sense of confidence and trust in that space. New faces or other people can threaten what they know, and as such, they can become warier of others."
"This can happen with familiar faces and strangers. Theoretically, the more familiar a child is with a person, the less likely they are to be ‘anti’ them. However, we must remember that although we as adults are familiar with someone, from a child’s perspective most people are still ‘new’ to them," he adds.
"Even though Aunty Sue is a close family friend whom you’ve known your whole life and has met your child a couple of times, with a child of one or two, the number of interactions they’ve had with Aunty Sue is still significantly small when compared proportionally to their lives. Just because you are familiar with a person, does not mean that your child will feel the same way."
A mind of their own
While you may also feel like you're caught in the middle when your tot inexplicably has a meltdown around a seemingly familiar face, know that you haven’t done anything to make this happen. If anything, it shows you’re doing a good job.
Lloyd adds that a well-adjusted child that has established healthy attachments with their primary caregivers will display some stranger anxiety.
This, he explains, is because they are getting to grips with their world. With their healthy attachment to you as their parent, they feel more confident.
"Introduce new people, and we disrupt the space where they feel confident," he says.
"As adults, we can relate to the idea of changes in our comfort area will likely create some uncertainty and anxiety – and that this is okay."
He adds that it then becomes important to recognise this in your child and help teach and guide them through it so they can learn to manage themselves in these situations.
"This way they don’t develop ‘clingy’ behaviours as their default reaction and helps to prevent them developing a sense of dependence on you (which will only develop into a greater difficulty when they get older)."
Your job is to help her through it
So, besides trying to placate everyone’s feelings when these situations arise, can you try to help your child work through these feelings of insecurity as she navigates her way through understanding more of her world and the people in it?
"Stay calm, and supportive of your child. If this is new behaviour, your child is trying to tell you something. It is your job as a parent to ‘hear’ what your child is telling you through their actions and then to support, guide and teach them through the moment," says Lloyd.
Here are a few ideas to try:
Reassure your child
As Lloyd explains, your child is behaving in this way simply because she is feeling emotionally unsettled.
"Help your child regulate their emotions (a significant skill for all people to have). Don’t just react to your child’s behaviour - it is critical to respond to your child," he stresses.
This demonstrates control and confidence (even if you don’t feel it at the moment). Your child will learn to trust you more and be more responsive to you if you can engage with them confidently.
"Again, think of yourself as an adult – how likely are you to believe or trust someone who seems reactive and lacks confidence?" he asks.
So, say something like, "I can see you’re feeling a little afraid and unsure right now and that’s okay. Let’s hug it out and then try again?"
Let her have some say
Create a sense of control in the situation that your child can understand, like laying some rules or expectations, like letting her know that you’re still there by saying something like, 'I will sit right here where you can see me'.
This example is a means of providing your child with the comfort that their support is still there, but they are encouraged to ‘test’ the new situation.
"Trust is critical here," says Lloyd.
When you know you’ll be going to a social event, have a chat with your child beforehand so that she has some idea of what to expect – and of what you expect her behaviour to be.
Lloyd recommends role-playing some of these situations with her toys to help communicate this concept.
You can also coach the adults through what’s happening.
"Reassure the adult involved about what’s going on – don’t let them take it personally, and provide some guidance as to how they can develop a relationship from what you know about your child and the other person," he adds.
Entitled to their opinions
While we do want our children to treat people with kindness and respect, there must be something to be said of allowing them some space to choose who they like to be around (and don’t).
"We are all entitled to our preferences. The challenge is in teaching your child how to assure themselves in their world in a respectful manner," says Lloyd.
"Young children do not have the emotional maturity to fully understand social dynamics and to make informed decisions about their behaviour and interactions. A child’s world is very much all about them and given space and opportunity they are likely to make choices that benefit them directly," Lloyd explains.
"It is important to help teach your child how to make the best decisions they can. If they appear to be rude along the way, it’s to be expected to some extent. If the rudeness is persistent, then we are dealing with different behavioural challenges beyond the strangers or ‘others’ they are exposed to."
But what about letting them have their own opinions about what they like and don’t like?
In a world where consent is an important concept to learn, and being able to have a say over what happens to them, helping them through a bout of stranger anxiety shouldn’t mean that we force them to be nice to all and sundry.
"I believe that it needs to be up to the parent to understand their child and their temperament or personality. A parent needs to remember that a child is not just an extension of you – they are their person. Yes, you as a parent certainly have a significant influence in shaping them, but at the end of the day they are still a unique individual and therefore they may be different to you," says Lloyd.
"So, treat them as a unique individual. If they begin to display behaviour that indicates that they may not want others in their personal space, that should be okay."
"We need to work with this to help them develop the skills and intuition to be able to read situations and people and how best to handle those moments to avoid coming across as rude or withdrawn," he says.
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