Just when you’re about to show off how sweet and bubbly your toddler is, he sees an unfamiliar face and totally clams up. You need not be alarmed. Lorelei Elma-Chua, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital in Manila, says that distress in the presence of strangers is part of growing up. It does not signify any emotional problem. “In fact, it means that the child is developing normally and is on the road to independence and individuality,” she adds. Rojessa dela Trinidad, M.D., D.P.P.S., a pediatric emergency room consultant at The Medical City in Pasig, agrees saying that this is part of a child’s normal cognitive development, which may start as early as 6 months until 2 years. “Usually, a child develops a preference for his parents or primary caregivers and rejects those people he thinks will separate him from them,” Dr. dela Trinidad says. Below are some tips on how to help your toddler adjust to strangers.
Meeting the stranger
Strangers need not look unusual to cause stress among children. Everyday encounters with ordinary people who are unfamiliar to them can trigger distress.
Stranger #1: The visitor who wants to carry your child
Whether the guest is an old friend or a relative, face value counts. What’s more important is the degree of familiarity. If he is an unfamiliar face to your child, he is automatically a stranger and any attempt to be carried by him may result in your child’s anxious crying. Such a quick and aggressive move from a stranger may frighten your child. It is therefore best to let your child set his own pace. Maricar Gustilo-de Ocampo, an education consultant at Maximus Inventus, Inc. in Pasig City says your child must not be forced or pressured to go with the visitor. “The child needs to interact with the visitor. Allow the visitor to play with him. Time is the best policy. You cannot hurry friendship,” she says.
Stranger # 2: The party people
“Whenever we’d attend parties or reunions, groups of people would immediately gather around Raffy when he was younger. That’s because he was so cute and gwapo. This would scare and overwhelm him, and he would cry,” shares Vangie Sanchez, mom to Rafael, 4, and Milo, 1. It would help if your child is not rushed into the party. “You could walk outside the house first while carrying or holding his hand, or you could talk about the party or reunion in a calm, reassuring tone,” Dr. Elma-Chua says.
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Once inside, approach small groups of people, one at a time, so as not to overwhelm your child. It would also be wise to advise your relatives on how to interact with your child. Ask Uncle Ted to lessen his cheek-pinching moves; tell Tita Letty to lower her voice by 10 decibels when greeting him. “Stay close to your child,” Dr. dela Trinidad suggests, “until he becomes accustomed to his surroundings.”
Stranger # 3: The stranger who brings out aggressive behavior
When strangers are unavoidably “aggressive” like when they attempt to carry or interact with your child when he is distressed, your toddler may also become aggressive as well. Gustilo-de Ocampo says that hitting and hair pulling are common reactions. “Remember, the child cannot communicate that well so he uses his hands and feet to show how he feels,” she explains. It is best to distance the child first from the stranger until he calms down. Tell your child immediately that it is not right for him to hit anybody. “Show him the appropriate behavior in such a situation,” says Gustilo-de Ocampo. “The stranger may also try to befriend the child first by offering a toy,” Dr. dela Trinidad adds. This “white flag” may help lessen the tension, as well as the injuries that come with it.
Stranger # 4: The ordinary, everyday stranger
Being adorable 24/7 isn’t the easiest job in the world for some kids. Outside the home, it is almost inevitable that a guard at the mall or any other random person would approach him or give him a smile. At times, the attention may not be welcome; your child may cry or become afraid. Tell your child that it’s okay. “Explain to him who the person is and what he is doing,” Gustilo-de Ocampo says. Soothe your child by speaking with a gentle voice. Move away gently from the stranger. distract him with something interesting. “Then maybe, you could go back to the stranger to return the greeting later,” Dr. Elma-Chua adds.
Stranger #5: The face that makes them hide
Some children, because of their fear and desire to disappear from the stranger’s eye, actually attempt to pull off a Houdini by covering their faces or by hiding behind their parents or yayas. In such situations, Dr. dela Trinidad advises parents to act warmly towards the person. “Greet him with a handshake, hug, or kiss to show the child that the particular stranger is accepted by his parents,” she says. If a child sees his parents welcoming the new person, he would also feel comfortable in his presence. “It will also help to reassure the child by holding his hand or just staying close to him,” adds Dr. dela Trinidad.
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At the end of the day, Gustilo-de Ocampo stresses that more exposure to different people and social situations, like bringing the child to family events or watching live shows is the fail-safe method that will lessen your child’s anxiety towards strangers. This will allow your child to be more comfortable around people he does not see regularly. More importantly, Dr. Elma-Chua also reminds parents not to be anxious. “It will go away little by little as the child continues on his path of development as an individual,” she concludes. With your help and with all these tips in mind, not only will your child face strangers with a smile on his face, he might well be on his way to becoming the life of the party, or the next social butterfly.
SOURCESo Lorelei Elma-Chua, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital, Taft Ave., Ermita, Manilao Rojessa F. dela Trinidad, M.D., D.P.P.S., pediatric emergency room consultant, The Medical City, Pasig Cityo Maricar Gustilo-de Ocampo, education consultant, Maximus Inventus, Inc., Pasig City