Development FAQ: 12-18 months – Behaviour

My daughter Harriet is 13-months-old and sometimes gets really scared of other people – not only strangers, but sometimes friends of mine whom she has met several times before. She looks at them fearfully and bursts into tears. Today we went to a singing group for the fourth time. The first two times were OK but the next two occasions we had to leave after ten minutes because she just wouldn’t stop crying and it was rather embarrassing. Once a week she stays for a couple of hours with a friend who has a son the same age. She has been going there for two months and she still becomes hysterical when I leave, and cries for about 15 minutes before taking a dummy and remaining rather solemn until I return, when she has another cry. However, at home she is happy and active and doesn’t cry when I leave the room etc. I have been at home with her since she was born, but we have always been out and about a lot and go to several baby and toddler groups, where she is happy to play with the other babies if she can see me. However, if I go to the toilet she does start crying. All the other children her age seem to be so laidback and happy to be left at crèches or with babysitters. I read recently that fear of strangers is linked to insecurity and lack of bonding in the first six months.

This made me feel very despondent and guilty as unfortunately Harriet was taken away from me straight after birth and taken to another hospital (where there was no room for me) for two days because of complications. Do you think this brief initial separation has played a part in causing this strong anxiety? Other than this, Harriet was a very easy baby and she has only ever experienced a secure, loving atmosphere. Is her anxiety normal, or can something like a birth-experience cause this sort of behaviour?

Firstly, congratulations on having a happy, active 13-month-old. That’s great. Now, let’s look at Harriet’s reluctance to leave you when out of her own familiar environment. At 13 months, Harriet is the age where ‘separation anxiety’ is at its most prominent. This is a normal reaction in a young child. What this means is that children of this age are most likely to become distressed if put into a new environment or if their mother goes out of their sight, for even a second. Securely attached children, that is children who have bonded well with their primary carer, use them (usually the mother) as a ‘secure base’ from which to begin to explore their environment. As you outline, Harriet has been used to having you around all the time. Therefore Harriet feels it is imperative to always have you with her, especially in new and unpredictable situations which may cause her to feel stress. Harriet’s behaviour clearly shows that she is securely attached to you as she does become distressed if you leave but can be easily comforted by you when upset. You describe a very typical scenario of Harriet being able to play well when you are in sight but becoming distressed if you leave. I am sure you notice her playing happily yet looking at you regularly to check on your whereabouts. Your presence in this situation gives Harriet the confidence to try new things and move further from you but if she feels threatened in any way, she will rush to be near you again. Children all go through this development until such time as they feel safe to do things without their parent. Of course, this happens at different rates with different children and is affected by their personalities and their environment. It seems that it takes Harriet time to get used to new situations and it may be that she is a child who needs longer than other children or who is somewhat shy or sensitive to what is happening around her.

It is very positive that Harriet is being exposed to different social situations which will give her many opportunities to get used to a variety of scenarios. Going to toddler groups, seeing friends and so on will all enable Harriet to get used to seeing new people and to learn that they are not threatening and that these situations can be safe. As you describe, Harriet is taking some time to adjust to experiencing these new situations and despite doing them a number of times is still showing signs of distress. However, the more she is exposed to them the easier they will become and in time it is very likely that Harriet will become more at ease being with different people and will not be frightened of them. She needs to be exposed to these situations in a calm, careful and relaxed manner as children take their cues from their parents, so if you are showing signs of distress it is likely it will transfer to her. However, I know how difficult it is to see your child in distress and as you can anticipate times when she will get upset it is natural for you to become more anxious yourself at these times. So give a lot of thought to how to introduce her to the situation, tell her what is going to happen, who is going to be there and so on, every time you go into it. You can reassure her that ‘Mummy will be with her’ or ‘Mummy will leave and come back soon’, as appropriate. You must judge what situations are appropriate and try not to overload Harriet at this stage with lots of new experiences. With regard to leaving her with your friend, it may be advisable to leave her for a very short period at first, gradually increasing that over time.

It is very unlikely that the experiences following her birth have contributed to Harriet’s worries as there has been plenty of time for Harriet to develop the appropriate bond and attachment with you. Although it was very difficult for you to have Harriet taken away from you following her birth, it was for a relatively short period of time, after which the bonding process between mother and child began in earnest. Harriet and you have had many months to create a warm and secure bond, and the loving environment which you describe will stand Harriet in good stead throughout her life.

As Harriet gets older, I am sure you will notice that she becomes more confident and less threatened by people and experiences. And remember, this stage will not last forever!