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Children / fatherhood / Mama Drama / Motherhood

Mama Drama: Scared of Strangers

Dear Mama Drama:

My three (almost four)- year-old has always been very friendly and outgoing. She waves and chats with our neighbors and speaks easily to other family friends.

Recently, she has begun behaving very differently with two families in the neighborhood. She hides behind me or my husband and won’t say hello. We feel very embarrassed and are not sure what to make of her behavior. We have talked with her about how rude this is and asked her why she won’t say hello. She can’t really give us any explanation other than that she doesn’t want to.

We don’t see these neighbors as often as others and are just casual acquaintances. We probably didn’t see them for four or five months during the cold winter weather before the behavior began. We also haven’t had any conversations with her about stranger safety so don’t think she would be scared of strangers.

We want her to be polite and don’t want to offend our neighbors, yet this doesn’t make any sense to us.

~Perplexed Mama

(photo credit)

Dear Perplexed:

You indicate that you have not talked with your daughter about stranger safety. Even though she is only three it is important to begin those conversations early and continue them often as she grows. Start small with information specific to the situations she will be in such as going to preschool or day care, playing at the park, shopping, or walking in the neighborhood. The basics are teaching her to stay with the grown up in charge of her unless that person tells her it is okay to go with or talk to someone else. Talking about these situations just before they occur will help her to remember the behavior you expect from her.

Children have different comfort levels interacting with adults and this can change with varying circumstances and as they get older. If your daughter does not want to speak, she can smile, nod, wave, or wiggle her index finger as a way to greet people.

Even with lots of parental support figuring out how to interact with strangers can be confusing for preschoolers. We teach them to stay with mom and dad and not to talk with strangers, yet ask them to greet people and answer questions of neighbors, friends, and sales clerks that they don’t know. It is often difficult for them to discern when to be friendly and when to hold back.  Giving your daughter choices of how she can greet adults who are strangers to her empowers her and supports your teachings about safety.

Children also experience the world differently than their parents. As adults you easily remember your neighbors over the winter months even when you don’t see them. However, preschoolers live very much in the present moment. Having not seen these families for months, along with having only a tangential connection to them, your daughter may not remember them at all.

If your daughter is attending preschool, her teachers may have taught a lesson about safety, especially stranger safety, as the summer months approach and more children are out and about. While most of the time these conversations take place in a gentle way, some children are more sensitive to these concerns than others and your daughter may feel more wary. There is a classic book that illustrates this well called The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers.  Don’t Talk to Strangers, Pooh! is another good choice. Books are helpful in facilitating conversations with children about strangers without being scary or overwhelming.

Let us know how you’ve handled stranger safety concerns with your children.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.

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  1. We have the stranger danger talks a few times a year, and we started at age 3, probably. The kids loved to role-play getting away from someone who was trying to trick them.

    One other thing that I try to be mindful of is encouraging my children to listen to their intuition about someone. It’s a slippery slope because you don’t want to appear rude, but also, maybe there is a reason why alarms are going off in your child with a certain person.

  2. Great advice, Lori. Thanks!

  3. My son is almost three and I’ve talked with him a bit about strangers. He too is generally quite outgoing and so when he becomes shy of certain individuals it does give me pause. He also often has a better memory than I, so just because a kid is young, I would not assume that they don’t remember folks they have not seen for a while. Perhaps they saw a neighbor yell at somebody or do something else that put her off. Or one of your other neighbors (or their kids) could have said something to put her off. I’d just let it go with a “kids will be kids” and then just gently talk to her about it from time to time and hopefully she’ll come around!

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