It was difficult for me to pay attention during our first behavioral science lecture of the block. The first topic we are covering is early human development. Since I am a father of two boys under two years old, I realize that it sounds strange I didn't find the subject interesting. While spacing out in class, I tried to pretend my disinterest was because I already knew everything about the topic. Surely, since I'm a decent parent and my toddler seems smart and well-behaved, early human development is a subject I've already mastered. Surely.
As I rode home on the bus yesterday, I was reading the notes for that lecture and came across a question about stranger anxiety and separation anxiety. I realized that I didn't know the difference between the two. I reflected upon the two concepts, and thought about my son's experience with these two different types of fears. Suddenly, the topic became very interesting to me.
The fear of strangers and the fear of being separated from a familiar object or person are two different things. Separation anxiety usually begins at 6-8 months and peaks from 14-18 months. Stranger anxiety appears at about the same time and peaks later at 24 months. While different, they can still relate to and influence each other.
An example will be helpful to illustrate the point. When our son was 18 months old, he was old enough to attend the nursery at church while we attended Sunday School. Initially, he was extremely uncomfortable in the new situation with a room full of new toddlers and a few new adults. Nonetheless, he would still manage to play and have a bit of fun in the strange new environment. When we would try to leave, however, he would cry maddeningly. That is separation anxiety. The same thing didn't happen at home when we left him alone in a room, so it's obvious that the separation anxiety was being compounded by stranger anxiety.
We spent a couple of Sundays in the nursery with him, and eventually he got over his separation anxiety with a little bit of help from a beloved Elmo doll. Several months later, however, the nursery moved classrooms and got new teachers. He couldn't handle that. Stranger anxiety attacked again, and it took a lot of comfort to get him over it.
Many parents might not realize that separation and stranger anxiety are perfectly normal. It's normal for infants to use their parents as a secure base from which to explore the world. This kind of attachment is key to forming relationships in the future. Furthermore, children that have been neglected or abused frequently don't go through separation or stranger anxiety and have problems forming friendships later on. Lack of anxiety is, of course, not proof of neglect, for some children simply have an easygoing temperament.
It's not a very exact science, which I suspect is part of the reason why I was initially disinterested. Even after writing this and briefly becoming excited about the topic, I have found myself again losing enthusiasm. I'll try to keep an open mind.
I am a medical student at BCM and all thoughts are my own. I am not a doctor. Please read the disclaimer.
Head on over and like Baylor Doctor on Facebook!