When your toddler is afraid around a relative

Baby is right in the middle of the time when stranger anxiety is normal, so a little fear over family members they doesn’t see very often is pretty much to be expected. Still, it’s not always easy to navigate different people’s feelings when toddler-fears come into play.

Stranger anxiety

Stranger anxiety is a normal response for babies and toddlers who are just starting to really understand the way people are separate from each other, and the way people and things can be familiar or unfamiliar. Stranger anxiety can start as young as 8 months and can get stronger around age 1, though it generally starts to fade by age 2.

If Baby is going through some stranger anxiety, the best way to deal with it is generally to let them get to know new people slowly, although showing them pictures of a relative they are about to see, talking to them about that person, and even setting up a few phone-calls or video calls ahead of time can give them the chance to feel like their grandmother isn’t such a stranger by the time they see her again.

Managing adult expectations

It can be hurtful to your friends or family members, if your little one, who may have been perfectly friendly to them the last time they saw them, are cold, distant, or afraid of them. It’s their job to act like adults and not take Baby’s reaction too personally, but even the most mature adult can be hurt when one of their favorite toddlers is upset or afraid around them – which is where you come in. You can prepare Baby’s loving admirers for the fact that they might like to say their first “hello” from a distance, and then spend a little time getting to know them before they are ready to be BFFs, or even just to give an unfamiliar relative a hug.

If you stay close to Baby as they are getting to know their long-lost relatives, you can help them feel secure and comfortable, and maybe give Baby’s would-be buddy a few tips for how to get on their good side, too.

Other reasons for nervousness or shyness

Stranger anxiety isn’t the only reason a tot might not want to get too close to their great aunt over the holidays, though. Toddlers tend to have strong likes and dislikes, and can take a dislike to people for any number of reasons, from too-tight hugs to too-strong perfume, a too-loud voice, or a sudden fear of beards. Fears like this generally pass as toddlers get to know newcomers better, so just like with stranger anxiety, letting Baby take the relationship at their own pace is the best way to get past it.

Depending on how chatty Baby is feeling, you can always ask them why they are afraid, especially if there’s a specific person they're afraid of.

Beyond passing fears, some toddlers are just shyer, and sometimes they grow up into shyer or slower-to-warm-up adults. That’s not a problem, and it’s generally not something that can be avoided with more socialization. Furthermore, outgoing toddlers are testing limits and trying to figure out relationships just as hard as their shyer peers – just like it’s totally normal for a toddler to go through a period of having a favorite parent, they can just as easily go through a stage where they have a least-favorite relative.

Warning signs

In most circumstances, when toddlers fear or are hesitant around family friends or relatives, it’s a stage that will pass, and it isn’t a sign that the friend or relative has done anything wrong. If you’re worried that a child’s fear might be related to sexual abuse, common signs include: bleeding, bruising, or swelling in the genital area, bloody, torn, or stained underclothes, frequent urinary or yeast infections, or itching or burning in the genital area.

  • Claire Lerner, Rebecca Parlakian. “Children with Shy or Slow to Warm Up Temperaments.” Zero to Three. ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, February 18 2016. Web.
  • “Child Sexual Abuse.” RAINN. RAINN, 2016. Web.
  • “You and Your Foster Child: Stranger Anxiety.” Office of Child Development, University of Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development. Web.
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