The Huddle Up

Stranger Danger vs. Separation Anxiety

Sep 2, 2023 | Parenting

Written by JoAnna Wu - One Huddle Parenting Expert
JoAnna Wu – One Huddle Parenting Expert

The difference between these developmental phases, and practical tips to help you through

You may have heard the term stranger danger when you were a child, your parents warning you not to accept candy or rides in vans from strangers. Or maybe once you had your own child someone commented on your child’s “fear” of strangers as they approached and the baby cried or tried to hide. We often expect children to be wary of total strangers, but many babies have an anxious response to anyone who they are not deeply attached to, including friends and family. 

*stranger danger is an easy to remember and commonly used phrase- stranger anxiety is the more official term used to explain an anxious response to unfamiliar people

You may have also heard of separation anxiety, especially if you have a toddler, or had a toddler, or have ever been in the presence of a toddler. People use this term to explain their baby crying or otherwise seeming distressed when their preferred adult leaves the room. You may hear someone exclaim “all I did was walk away for a second and my toddler started screaming! I mean, I spend 20 hours a day with them! Where do they think I’m going?!”. Often separation anxiety is paired with words like clingy or needy, adding a distinctly negative (and I’d argue unwarranted) connotation.  

These phrases are sometimes used interchangeably in casual conversation. And because there are so many moments when a child is being left with a new caregiver and their primary adult is leaving, it makes sense. But we are actually witnessing a child work through two distinct (though related and often overlapping) psychological experiences, while also trying to understand the world! 

 A Peek Behind the Cognitive Curtain: Developmental Stages

Understanding a child’s developmental stage is helpful in understanding their experience of the world, which in turn allows us to better understand their behavior. 

Key developmental milestones for social competency

Babies first learn who they can trust/distrust (Can I trust you to take care of me? Are my needs consistently & lovingly met?), toddlers then explore their desire for autonomy (Am I capable person- separate from my grownup? Does my grownup believe in my competence and ability to learn new skills?). 

Around 7- or 8-months old babies develop object permanence: the concept that an object still exists when it cannot be seen or heard. Peek-a-boo and other hide-and-reveal games become endlessly entertaining at this age! You may have witnessed the pure joy a baby experiences from dropping an item over and over and over again, just for it to magically reappear!

So, what does this mean for daycare drop off, date nights, or grandparent visits? 

Stranger Danger (stranger anxiety)

Around 8 months old stranger anxiety usually emerges as the baby begins the process of distinguishing between “familiar” and “unfamiliar”. A child’s primary caregiver is their link to security and safety, and the unknown represents the potential loss of that safety. This threat of danger can trigger an anxious response- especially if an unfamiliar adult is trying to take a baby from its mother. It is understandable then, that when you’re trying to drop your child off at daycare, a babysitter or even with their grandparents- all your baby really cares about is that this person isn’t their person! This can be upsetting for people who are involved in your child’s life because it can feel like a rejection. But really, being wary of strangers is a protective instinct meant to help keep the child out of danger! 

Separation Anxiety

Once a child has developed object permanence, they understand that when their favorite adult isn’t within their sight, they still exist somewhere else. But being attached to your primary caregiver is another protective instinct- it makes sense to stay close to the person who protects you and makes sure you’re taken care of. And what makes this tricky as a baby, is that they don’t develop a sense of time until elementary school- so they don’t know if you’ll be gone for a moment, a day, or forever! Their instincts tell them to keep you close- always. This can be exhausting as if every time you leave the room or even try to walk away your child screams -even when their other parent or a loving caregiver is with them! 

How do I help my child through this?

Children thrive when they have multiple secure attachment figures, and children learn best from repetition, so providing many opportunities for positive interactions with adults that you know and trust will help your child create these bonds. It’s also important to remember that children adapt quickly when in a safe and loving environment- but it does take time. Your child’s protests at school drop off don’t mean they shouldn’t go to school. But you can help support them through that experience and help them learn the skills they will need to meet future challenges.  

It can also be helpful to remind adults in your child’s life that this behavior is developmentally appropriate and not personal. It can be painful to feel rejected by someone you love (this can be especially true with grandparents or very close family members) but making your child feel guilty or ashamed for their reaction won’t help.   

Your child is also always observing how you are reacting to the environment. If you project calm confidence, that is what your child will feel from you. If you become upset or flustered by your child’s feelings, your anxiousness can make your child think that there really is something to be concerned about. Like when a child falls and they look to their parents for a reaction before reacting themselves, we want to let our children have their own experience and feelings and not project ours onto them.  

Key take-aways:

  • Try to show your child you are confident in leaving them with this new person. Convey that you believe your child is safe, and will be well taken care of.
  • Validate their experience (even if you think they can’t understand your words)- they are not wrong to be scared or nervous of people they don’t know, or of you leaving.
  • Respect your child’s temperament and their right to have their own feelings. Some children simply take longer to warm up in new environments
  •  Don’t let others’ judgment of your child’s behavior/reaction influence your decisions
  • Avoid negative or judgmental comments:
    • “Stop crying, you’re fine!”
    • “You’re making Grandma sad when you cry like that! You love her- just go!”
    • “She’s always so clingy, she’s going to be impossible to drop off when she goes to school.”
    • “He’s just so shy- he’ll get over it eventually” 
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