Patience is key when teaching a clingy or upset child that separation is normal—mom or dad WILL come back.
It may cause you some embarrassment, but when your child screams and clings to you at the mere approach of Aunt Marge (or nearly any other unfamiliar person), he's actually responding in a very normal way.
"Stranger anxiety is nothing more than your child's way of telling you that he prefers you over anyone else," explains Robert Needlman, M.D., F.A.A.P., associate professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. "Humans are born with the instinct to create strong emotional attachments to special people in their lives, and the flip side of a strong emotional attachment is some anxiety or shying away from other people."
Needlman says the "stranger danger" reaction occurs among almost all babies and often appears at around 9 to 12 months of age. There is great variability in when children begin to outgrow it, as well as its severity, but many begin to be more accepting at 2 1⁄2 to 3 years old.
In the meantime, patience is paramount. "The key is to know your child," says Needlman. "If you have a very reserved child, don't push it, but rather respect his need for some time. You might say to a well-meaning adult, 'If you stand over there for a while and don't talk directly to Johnny, pretty soon he'll be more comfortable.' "
The best overall approach, he adds, is to present your child with small challenges that he can handle. "You wouldn't take a child with severe stranger anxiety to a very boisterous party," he says, "but you might take him to a quiet gathering of one or two friends."