Why So Scared?

Does your toddler perpetually look angry or worried when faced with anything unfamiliar? DR RICHARD C. WOOLFSON shares how you can work with his slow-to-warm-up temperament.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Does your toddler perpetually look angry or worried when faced with anything unfamiliar? DR RICHARD C. WOOLFSON shares how you can work with his slow-to-warm-up temperament.
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If your toddler is one of those who always seems to be suspicious of new surroundings and new people, and perpetually looks angry or worried when faced with anything unfamiliar, then you may be worried he isn’t getting as much fun out of life as he could have.

He is very slow to warm up, compared to other two-year-olds who immediately throw themselves into every new experience with total enthusiasm. He looks miserable and anxious, while the rest are having a great time.

There can be several explanations for your young child’s wariness of the unfamiliar, including:

Shyness Some children who are shy actually look like they are annoyed when they meet new people. Their suspicious facial expressions mask their underlying social anxiety about mixing with others they don’t already know.

Previous experience The last time your toddler met someone new, it might not have worked out the way he had hoped. Now he is afraid that will happen again.

Personality Not every kid can be the life and soul of the party. If your two-year-old is reticent and cautious by nature, that’s simply his way of engaging with the world around him. His natural temperament makes him suspicious of strangers.

You almost certainly have nothing to worry about as long as your toddler’s suspicious nature doesn’t interfere with his life. For example, he doesn’t refuse to go to playgroup, he isn’t socially isolated with his peers and he doesn’t avoid going outdoors.

Even so, you may still want him to be more outgoing and trusting to others, and to appear less withdrawn and aloof when meeting someone new.

One of the best strategies is to create opportunities for your young kid to spend time with other children and adults. This could be when his grandmother looks after him for an afternoon or when the babysitter stays with him while you go out for an evening. You could also take him along for lunch dates with your friends.

The more opportunities he has to socialise, the more confident he becomes in managing these experiences. The same applies to mixing with his peers.

Do this even if he continues to appear angry or anxious. If you let your toddler miss new social experiences simply because he is wary of meeting new people, he won’t have the chance to learn how to respond differently.

Where possible, give your toddler advance warning that he’ll soon have contact with unfamiliar adults. You won’t always be able to do this, but a few minutes’ notice gives him time to prepare himself psychologically, for example, to meet unexpected visitors to your home.

And when they arrive at your front door, give him lots of assurance and encouragement to be less reticent with them.

But avoid putting him under excessive pressure to be overtly friendly. Explain to him that you will not force him to be warm and open with your visitors, but make it clear that you expect him to try.

You can also teach him specific social skills and practical actions that make him look less distant and apprehensive. For instance, explain that he should make eye contact and put a smile on his face.

Likewise, he should keep his shoulders back and hold his head up straight. Encourage him to reply when spoken to.

Practise these through role-play – you can pretend to be someone whom he has never met before.


"Create opportunities for your tot to spend with other children and adults. The more chances of meeting others, the more confident he becomes."