Babies are hardwired to be social creatures, and from their very first moments they thrive on interacting with the human face. But that’s not to say that being social comes easy for all.
While babies and small children are constantly observing and learning from the people they meet, some children find being introduced to new faces difficult. Change can be a scary thing for kids, and whether you’re introducing them to a child their age or a friend of a friend you bumped into in the street, new interactions can be nervy for many.
From the age of around 7 months, babies that once loved snuggling into the arms of just about anyone begin to experience stranger anxiety. This is a sign of healthy emotional development and attachment, and nothing to feel worried about. Your baby now understands the difference between you and another person and, of course, they prefer you.
The best way to limit this anxiety is to raise a friendly baby.
Researchers at the University of York found that the more tuned-in parents are to their babies’ emotions and interests, the faster their little ones develop socially and cognitively. By acknowledging that you understand what makes them happy, your baby feels comfortable in their interests and learn to empathise with the mental lives of others. Follow your baby’s gaze when they’re smiling, and say outloud that you understand – “Oh you like that man’s watch. It’s nice and shiny isn’t it?” You can further this by acknowledging to the man that your baby likes his watch – “You made that man smile by liking his watch. His smile must mean that he’s happy”.
Essentially, the goal should be to create friendliness all around you via your language and to be a good role model.
Your baby’s shyness will most likely peak around 18 months, and the length of their shyness will depend on your approach to handling it. First things first, don’t label your child as “shy”, as once labelled they tend to live up to it.
Your goal with an anxious baby or toddler is to make them feel as comfortable as possible around new or different people. You can:
For some older toddlers, the introduction of new people is associated with fear. Since toddlers have a keen sense of what is theirs, they see new people as a threat to their possessions, parents, and anything they feel could be taken away. New people means more people to fight for attention against, so the more you show them that they are still your number one, the less fear they should have.
If you have to leave your child with an unfamiliar person such as a carer at child care, let your child know that you will be leaving and that you will be back after they’ve had their fruit snack. Slipping away will leave them with the fear that you have disappeared, and not knowing when you’ll be back will leave them feeling anxious all day. Don’t use a time, as saying “I’ll be back at 3 o’clock” means nothing to them.
When using a babysitter, explain to your child that you are leaving them in the care of this person because you trust them and you know they’ll have fun with them. If possible, have your babysitter arrive early and play together for half an hour before attempting to leave.
Most children feel shy from time to time but the lives of some are severely curtailed by their shyness. Children who suffer from extreme shyness may grow out of it on their own, but others may benefit from professional help.
Causes for concern include:
In general there is little reason for concern in small children, unless their shyness is particularly debilitating, as most shyness and stranger anxiety is resolved by the age of five.