When I was staying at home with my toddler, I went to the playground and the library every day, where I developed a mom posse of sorts. We spent every day chatting about our lives, and of course, our toddlers. Since our kids had all been around their peers since they were babies, it seemed strange when one of the little girls suddenly seemed to be afraid of the other children.
We noticed that when too many toddlers showed up at the playground, this little girl would stop freely exploring and take respite in her moms arms, sometimes even crying so much that they had to leave. In my own efforts to help, I tried to teach my daughter how to respect other people's boundaries or adjust her behavior to make her friends comfortable. These attempts did help our friend feel safer with my child, but she still appeared to be fearful of other toddlers, especially strangers. We never really got to the bottom of why this happened, so in my effort to learn more, I reached out to a pediatrician and a child psychologist.
Why Is My Toddler Afraid of Other Toddlers?
Bad experiences with other toddlers are most likely what's behind a toddler's fear of their peers, Chanh Ho, MD, MPH, a pediatrician working at the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, told POPSUGAR. "Toddlers are quite sensitive with feedback. That is why a simple event in life could change their behavior significantly," Dr. Ho explained. He named a few examples, including others taking toys away from your toddler, accidents that caused pain, or even toddlers who hurt others to get what they want.
Amy Nasamran, Ph.D., licensed child psychologist and founder of Atlas Psychology, told POPSUGAR that toddlers who seem afraid of their peers may be highly sensitive. "Researchers estimate that about 20 percent of children are highly sensitive. This means that your child may have sensory processing sensitivity, which is a personality trait in which individuals are very in tune to the subtleties in their environment," she said. Highly sensitive children aren't necessarily afraid of other kids but rather they are easily overwhelmed with the noise and action typical of normal toddler play. "In reality they are sensitive to the lights, sounds, and action of playtime. They may prefer to play quietly, one on one with another child or adult, or alone," Dr. Nasamran explained.
How Can I Help My Toddler If They're Afraid of Other Toddlers?
If you notice that your toddler seems afraid of other children on the playground, Dr. Ho suggested talking with any other adults that are responsible for your toddler, like a nanny or nursery school teacher. Clear communication between caregivers is the best way to find out what might be the cause of your child's fear. He also advised that parents check the child for bruises or wounds, and treat any injuries or see a doctor if necessary. "In most cases, your child will soon recover and be social again, but if not, you should consult a psychologist or therapist," Dr. Ho said.
"How we help depends on the underlying reason for your toddler's fear," noted Dr. Nasamran. "There are several explanations for fear in toddlers, including high sensitivity, social skills deficits, and social anxiety. Observing your toddler in different social situations is a good way to begin to understand the underlying reason behind your toddler's fear of others."