Stranger Danger: Teach Your Child the Difference Between Safe and Scary

Is “Stranger Danger” a good thing? That is the question I want to discuss with you today. The obvious answer is yes, it is a good thing, but sometimes it can affect safe people. So, I want to talk about stranger anxiety and stranger danger itself to get an understanding of what they are and why it happens. I’ll look at why they are important, how to help your child understand who is not safe, and how to help your child feel comfortable around safe people. And as always, I am happy to share our experience and how stranger anxiety has impacted Savannah and her mom’s and dad’s lives during this pandemic.

Stranger Danger: The Basics

Let’s begin with the basics. Stranger anxiety begins when your newborn/child has developed an attachment to familiar people, i.e. you, your child’s parents! Which is an awesome thing. Your baby recognizes you and feels comfortable around you. As a first-time dad, I can tell makes me feel special and warm and fuzzy inside. Because your child prefers familiar adults, she might react To new people by looking scared or crying. Another way of thinking about this is your child is starting to gain a sense of structure or organization in their world. Meaning your child realizes the relationship they have with the adults they are around the most (often their parents or caregivers) is different then their relationship with unknown people, or strangers.

Stranger anxiety starts to take shape around 7-10 months give or take a few, but all babies are different. Savannah is seven months old as of yesterday and she has been showing signs for a couple of months now. This can last only a few months or it can continue much longer. Infant stranger anxiety typically passes around 18-24 months though. I am referring to your newborn and toddler’s stranger anxiety, not necessarily the very important awareness we want to teach our children about strangers known as Stranger Danger. The traditional “don’t take candy from a stranger,” kind. I will talk about that in a little bit.

Another sometimes uncomfortable milestone your child will almost certainly go through at some point is separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is different from stranger danger even though they are often intertwined. Separation anxiety is simply when your child is aware, they have been separated from their parents. This could mean going to daycare, staying home with a babysitter, visiting her grandparents, or some other obvious example. In the beginning, this temporary caregiver might also be a stranger making the experience even harder for your child. Hopefully, that will change, and your child will begin to recognize grandparents, etc. Separation anxiety is normal but can lead to Separation Anxiety Disorder in some cases. Here is an awesome article on SAD symptoms, risk factors, and treatments.

Why Stranger Anxiety of Stranger Danger is Important

I think we are all thankful that children naturally develop stranger anxiety on their own. We can agree it’s important because we want to protect our children from harm. It’s really the foundation of your child internally thinking to question a situation or a specific person. We as parents and caregivers have a responsibility to build on top of that foundation a solid understanding on the matter. But what if that natural instinct wasn’t there. It could be difficult to try and explain why this adult is safe and other adults aren’t. I think we take for granted that concept. If we didn’t just have something inside us that questions our surroundings and strangers, we would probably have a much more difficult time understanding why it’s so important.

Stranger anxiety is an intuition. Amazingly, it develops in your child before they are even one year old. That’s pretty awesome. Strangers are scary because there are people that might do harm to our children. Abuse, child abductions, bullying, and the list goes on. Eventually we can teach our children about these things, but luckily, at a very young age they already know to question someone unfamiliar. This can be inconvenient at first because you want your child to feel comfortable around her family and your friends and sometimes, they just aren’t. So let’s talk about a few ways to help your child know the difference.

Helping Your Child Understand Who is Not Safe

Some of this information depends on the age of your child. Obviously a six-month-old isn’t going to understand the majority of this. Our daughter is seven months old, so this is a little advanced. These are all discussions we will eventually have and the sooner the better in my mind. We can always talk about it again as she gets older. Keep that in mind though. I mentioned before stranger anxiety begins around 7-10 months and starts to fade around 24 months. I believe that we want to build on that natural foundation and help educate our children to understand who is not safe. Here are a few helpful suggestions:

  • Talk. Talk. Talk. Remember to have a lot of conversations about stranger danger. Teach your child they shouldn’t accept any type of gift from someone they do not know.
  • You can focus on the general concept rather than one specific example. It’s not “don’t take candy from a stranger,” it’s about teaching your child about consent and how consent works. Teach your child it is up to them if they want to accept a gift or a ride or assistance from someone.
  • Always use the buddy system. Teach your child not to go anywhere alone. There is safety in numbers. You will not always be able to be with your child so make sure you help them understand they should always be with a safe person.
  • It is okay to say no. Teach your child it’s okay to say no. Let them know it is okay to say no thanks, walk away, make a scene if necessary.
  • Talk to your child about intuition. Explain the natural feeling inside they get when they question someone or a situation. Let them know if they do not feel comfortable, even if the stranger seems friendly, they should trust that natural feeling. That feeling is there for a reason and helps us when we aren’t sure what to do.
  • Teach your child not to worry about hurting a stranger’s feelings when they are worried about their own safety. Let them know they can apologize later if they need to but it is always better to be safe.
  • Have a conversation with your child about what to do if something does happen. If the worst were to happen, you want to make sure your child knows what to do. Make sure they know to come to you right away and talk to you about it. Make sure they report anything that happens to them immediately. Help them understand it is important to tell you and to tell you right away.

Helping Your Child Feel Comfortable Around Safe People

Again, this section is to help educate our children and that is mostly meant for children two and up, but I think we can even do things at a much younger age to help our newborns and babies understand who is safe. Here are a few helpful suggestions:

  • If your child is uncomfortable around someone safe, try something new. Maybe get down on the floor and play with your child and the new person at a safe distance.
  • Talk about safe adults. Talk about grandma and grandpa and how they are safe and fun. Talk about how excited they are to spend time together. Show your child pictures of them while you talk about them.
  • Discuss your child’s fear of strangers rather than dismissing it. Help them feel safe again and then discuss the situation. Make sure to tell them that person is okay. Hold your child in your own arms, but close to that person to show your child that person is safe.
  • Introduce new people at home if possible. This is where your baby feels the most comfortable.
  • Take every opportunity to introduce your child to new people. Simply fearing all new people isn’t going to help your child. You want to help build their understanding of who is okay and who isn’t. Your child will watch you for cues. If you are introducing them to someone new and you are showing them it’s okay, they will start to understand.
  • Be present when introducing your child to someone new. Hopefully, this will help your child know you aren’t going to leave them with this new person.
  • Remember not to worry about the new person’s feelings too much. They are an adult and will understand your child is learning to be around new people. Your child isn’t singling anyone out or being rude, they are simply not familiar with that person.
  • Explain who the new person is and why they are a safe person. Always be educating.
  • Try and wait a moment before jumping in to help. Let your child have a moment to learn for herself. Encourage the new person to try a few things like playing peekaboo or helping her stand up next to something they can touch. Have them try switching positions or doing something familiar that you do that usually helps. And always stay close by.

How Stranger Danger Has Impacted Us During COVID   

Our pediatrician started telling us that COVID is causing newborns to have an increased effect earlier on with stranger anxiety due to seeing their extended family members and other New people in their lives less often than they typically would. Our daughter Savannah started showing subtle signs of being afraid of new people around four months old. Those signs became less subtle at six months and are in full tilt now at seven months. We have noticed she seems to be afraid of adult men. I didn’t actually research that to see if that is common, but my intuition is that it probably is common. That is just fine with me too. Like I said, I like that our daughter has a natural fear of strangers and maybe even more so, strange men.

With that being said, as I mentioned previously, Savannah isn’t really around unsafe strangers right now. The strangers in her life are our family and friends and I want her to feel comfortable around those people. We have been fortunate that Savannah has not gone to daycare yet. I say fortunate only because we personally prefer to be around her as much as possible! She really hasn’t even spent more than a few hours away from her mom and I was there during those times. So, for our situation, stranger danger has impacted the safe people. Specifically, her grandpa’s and uncle’s.

I know how that can hurt them a little bit. I just mention to that adult they they shouldn’t let it hurt their feelings. Well I mean that, I think it’s natural that it does a little. We as adults have to remember not to let it. I have had much younger cousins that I wanted to build a relationship with but ended up being afraid of me, so I didn’t push it. But it was kind of difficult for me. As the adult, you typically don’t always know what to do. I can only speak for myself, but I didn’t know how to react because I wasn’t a parent yet. The “rejection” always seems to be in a public setting too where you try to say “hello” and they cry, ignore you, or just make a face and leave. And let me tell you, that doesn’t always feel great.

So, I have been there and I know how it feels. Alex and I are going to do our best to help Savannah understand the difference between someone safe and someone scary. We probably face a bigger hurdle due to COVID too, so it could be a bit of a process for us. We happen to live in Lincoln, NE where the positive case numbers are more favorable than a lot of the country, so we have started to visit family members in a safe way. We are trying to encourage Savannah to build an understating of who her extended family is. If those few people out there that little Savy Bee has showed a few signs of fear towards are reading this, do not worry, we will help her feel safe around you too!

Wrap Up

What do you think? Do you agree with me? Tell me in the comments below. I hope you enjoyed learning a little more about “Stranger Anxiety” and “Stranger Danger.” There are so many articles out there worth reading about this. It really makes me feel confident knowing Savannah is developing that instinct, a natural fear of strangers if you will, but it is also Alex’s and I’s responsibility too to help maintain that . Please let Alex and I know how you introduce your little ones to new people and if you have discovered any neat tricks! Also, if there is a topic you would like us to cover, let us know and we will try to do that for you. Thank you for reading and happy parenting!

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