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What makes children very scared of strangers?

My one-year-old boy has had stranger anxiety since he was seven months old. He'd scream and cry if a "stranger" - that includes relatives who only visit once in a while - tries to come close to him or pick him up. And even after removing him from the situation, he can't stop crying for a long time. Especially if it's a repeated visit to a place he's already been to and cried.

His cousin, on the other hand, is wary of strangers, but after a short time he will voluntarily go to them. He's two months younger, but I'm comparing their behaviors at the same ages. Well, not really comparing in a detrimental way; I just want to know what it is that affects babies' behavior towards strangers. If it's just nature or nurture too.

The similarities:

Neither of them have been going to day care or having play dates because of the pandemic. They both have one set of grandparents who visit often, who they're comfortable with.

The differences:

The cousin has one older sibling. But almost no exposure to public spaces or random people other than hospitals. My son has no siblings. He goes out for walks every day, observing people at the park is his favorite thing to do. He even waves hi to strangers (from whom there is no danger of being picked up).

If it's nurture, what can we do to make him less scared?

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    "Nature or nurture" is a false dichotomy. Its more like "nature via nurture". The personality that emerges for each individual is the sum of their experiences, processed through the lens of their inherent "nature". Even experiences within the womb, such as maternal stress, can have impacts on mental development. – Paul Johnson Jan 11 at 15:13
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    @user21820 He's one year old, he's not verbal yet – learner101 Jan 12 at 5:00
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    @learner101 This is where you start realising that your child isn't just a baby, but actually is developing into a person who has their own likes and dislikes. Being picked up by random people is not essential to their development. If they don't like it, why not stop people doing it? – Graham Jan 12 at 9:32
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    Update : We had his one year doctor's appointment today, which includes a vaccination. He only cried while he was being given the shots. When I picked him up after, he quickly stopped crying. In his aunt's house however, he started crying as soon as he saw their house and didn't stop for about 30 mins. Apparently the memory of people trying to pick him up and the anticipation that they'll do it again is far more traumatizing than getting 2 injections!! Looks like his trigger is people picking him up or even trying. Not just stranger anxiety in general. I will be mindful of this. – learner101 Jan 13 at 8:56
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    I don't think this merits a new answer as the accepted answer is perfectly clear, but I would just like to add that most children learn to identify people at around 6-8 months. So a 5-month-old who's happy for anybody to pick them up (as long as they look generally friendly) might be scared of the very same person a few months later simply due to developing the ability to realize "wait, I don't know who this is" in the meantime. – laszlok Jan 13 at 15:24
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From your description, it does not sound like your son has an irrational fear of strangers. He may simply hate being picked up by them, and have learned that this is a plausible outcome of strangers approaching too closely.

If this is the case, then it seems to be that its the people who pick him up without consent need to change, not him. There are few situations where a stranger has to pick up a 1 year old child, so I suspect this is mostly about them wanting to. Remind people interacting with your son that they should only pick him up if necessary or if he consents. Even if he is not very verbal yet, going down on ones knees in a distance of maybe 1.5 meters, opening ones arms and smiling at a toddler seems to be commonly understood as offer to pick them up, which is accepted by the toddler hugging the adult and rejected otherwise.

Once your son sees that he no longer gets grapped unwillingly, he will hopefully be able to figure out ways to interact with new people which are enjoyable for everyone involved.

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I guess it is both. All children are scared of strangers - it is natural for their protection. They know a very few people from the birth - mother, father, maybe siblings. They know, that these people take care of him, feed him, love him, play with him. But he doesn't know what to wait from strangers. Even if he meets them from time to time (once a month for example). And as adults different children need different time to overcome this fear and to get along with other people, that are outside of his small family circle.

What I suggest is: tell other people (friends, relatives) not to pay any attention on your son when they come at your place. Apperently your boy doesn't like to be picked up. And it is more stressful for him if people do it without his "permission". Just chat with visitors, smile and laugh a lot, touch them sometiems to show, that there is nothing dangerous for you and your family, there is no threat. Do not push your son to them, just hold him or his hand to show, that he is under your protection. Usually children "read" people's faces, their emotions and feelings, they watch gestures and reactions. Soon they understand if my parents are good with these people, there is nothing to worry about.

If your visitors want to say hello to your son, tell them to get down on their knees so they become the same height as your son, do not come close, just smile, say hello and then again do not talk to him for some time. At the same time you must watch your son's reaction. If he is about to cry, try to give him a toy or a game. Let him play in the room where you all are. When the boy gets used to be in one room with your relatives, you may start leaving him alone with them for first 1 min, then 5 mins, then 10 mins.... , then ask him to give granny a toy or bring her scarf, show his favourite book, etc.

This scheme worked with my daugther, when she was 1.5 years and didn't get well with her granny who she sees not very often.

You need patience. All children are different. And you will meet a lot of fears in his life (monsters under the bed, death, loud noises). All this is natural.

Hope my advice will be helpful

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It's both nature and nurture. Some babies are naturally more wary of strangers. Two of my kids were polar opposites on that scale. Exact same nurturing, very different nature.

People whose own children are more similar to each other sometimes overestimate the effect of nurturing, but the effect is still there. A baby who is naturally more scared of strangers, but who spends a lot of time around them from an early age, such as at daycare, will overcome her fear a lot faster than a child of the same disposition who is rarely away from her parents.

As far as helping them overcome their fear, there is no perfect strategy, but the most common mistake I see is parents reinforcing the fear by looking nervous and snatching the baby back at the first sign of discomfort. You have to project some calm.

Even so, some babies won't ever like strangers. My youngest daughter was around 5 before she made meaningful progress with strangers. We started giving her incentives like if she wanted dessert she had to ask the waitress herself, and gave her plenty of space and time to work up the courage. Now she's more capable than a lot of kids her age with things like that. She overcame her fear in her own time and in her own way. We just gave her nudges in the right direction.

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Where I come from people do not pick up kids*, or anybody at all, without asking. It is a horrible, menacing feeling. In fact, I am a small adult and when I was young it has happened that men would actually pick me up if I refused to dance. This is why I learned self-defence; it did not end well for them.

If you want to pick up a tiny kid, you stretch out your arms and see if they stretch theirs too. If they don't, that means no. Respect this and expect others to respect it too.

It is normal and good if your child does not want to be overpowered by strangers.

*obviously you will pick it up without warning, if it is your own child and you really need to, or if you see a kid running into danger.

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Karl answer is good. My daughter for one also was scared from everyone. Even people staring at her made her cry. Honestly we didn't do anything. Just asked people not to approach or pay attention to her in any way. After awhile she gets used with the person and interacts normally. "Awhile" I mean even half an hour or less.

I have also seen grown-up people behave like this. I had a friend who was orphan. When new people came, he stood aside looking suspiciously at them, then he needed like half an hour to observe from distance before he could relax and behave normally. Of course he didn't realize this.

When daughter became older, she gradually overcame these issues. When she started going to school, interact with other children, interact with cashiers, etc.

We didn't do anything special. We've been calm about it, we didn't force her to do anything she doesn't want. The only thing I can remember was not giving in to go buying some sweets for her to the shop but tell her to go buy by herself. Other than that just explaining human relationships as much as we understand them.

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Something that really helped me when I remember being anxious, scared, and shy towards strangers as a kid was when an adult could hold their place emotionally. It's more difficult if a child is crying, but if you can focus on the moment and approach the "stranger" in a friendly matter, and they do the same, it can help with their fear.

Kids feel very easily and can pick up on your anxiety easily as well (I still did even as a teen!), so any improvements you make can helps enable them. You can even focus on these moments as opportunities to learn alongside your child.

The only times I think that a parent's emotion posed a sizable obstacle to me feeling better in a public situation was when they were experiencing strong fear or anxiety. I would run away, close off, or hide in those moments. If that's the case then I would suggest grounding yourself in the sensations of your body and focusing on your senses. I find that when you care so much for someone's well being it's difficult to think your way into a better feeling place in the moment that the opposite seems true. That's why I suggest focusing on your body and senses so you can feel a bit better. Its a good way to help navigate around comparing him to another child as well, or thinking about the "scene" you are making. I have seen a lot of times when parents beat up on themselves like that in the moment, and if you can be a bit nicer to yourself, your child may find some relief as well!

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We are all of us, similarly unique. From outlandish extrovert to hermit like introvert. Accept he may never outgrow it. A ton of stuff is just baked in. Defend and support him. Keep the clueless kid picker uppers at bay until he can do it himself.

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