Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
Home |
The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
WILLIAMS, T. D. (2002). Stranger Reaction in Children. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 5. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 28, 2023 .

Stranger Reaction in Children
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (cronk@missouriwestern.edu)
This study investigated stranger reaction in children. Children of various ages were introduced into a room with an unfamiliar adult present. After the researcher pointed out age appropriate toys she left the room. A third unbiased person recorded the reaction of the child and marked it as positive, negative or a neutral reaction. Overall, older children responded more positively than younger children. This supports the idea that some broad change in psychological functioning is taking place.

Anxiety is marked as an apprehension or uneasiness about events taking place Anxiety can be aroused by many different factors, in many types of people. Children are often known to go through a period of “anxiety” or have a reaction when a stranger is around them. Children will cry or move away from the unfamiliar person (Kagan, 1988). The children will show signs that we would associate with fear, such as a widening of the eyes and a retraction of the mouth. (Kagan, 1988). This is reaction is commonly referred to in many places has stranger anxiety. This reaction that children have is just that a reaction. To call this anxiety is taking liberties we don’t have. Children cannot tell us that they are feeling anxious with a stranger in the room. Their reaction is similar to that of anxiety or fear or even surprise. This change in behavior or facial expression is a reaction to the stranger. There are many other ideas on why this is reaction and not anxiety, such as whether the child has developed object permanence or not. (Bird, 1980) According to Leitenberg, many theorists support that this reaction to strangers, whether it be positive or negative, is part of a broad change in psychological functioning. These changes may represent object permanency or information processing or many other different types of change. However, it does say that something with these reactions is happening in the psychological functioning. In looking at the different ages of children and their reaction to strangers, I wish to look for a critical age that this stranger reaction occurs. Is there an age where children are highly sensitive to strangers? In looking at the different ages and how they react can lead to more work into anxiety disorders in children. This might lead to some evidence on when children are throwing up a red flag that there is something wrong, or it could help over concerned parents or childcare workers to know it is a phase of all children and if doesn’t pass by a certain time than we need to worry. Looking at this reaction can help us to learn more about the different phases children pass through in their development. Children have trouble communicating thoroughly to adults, which leaves us often in the dark about certain things. Could this anxiety or similar emotion the time when object permanency comes about or is this just a reaction. In looking at the age at which this reaction seems to be most prevalent, we can compare this age to the different ages marked by other theorists and look for similar patterns to tell us more about the development of children.


Children varying from ages of six months up to four years of age were the participants. All children attend the Ruth Huston Child Care Center in Saint Joseph, Missouri.

The children were introduced, one at a time, into a room with a one-way mirror and shown age appropriate toys. When the child was comfortable with the room the experimenter left the room. A stranger, an unfamiliar adult, was sitting in the room. The stranger did not approach the child. An unbiased, third person recorded the reaction. Only very noticeable reactions were recorded, such as: crying, moving away, smiling, laughing, or a frown. These were then given a score positive was a three, neutral was a two, and negative was a one.

A stranger in this experiment was an adult, with whom the children were unfamiliar. A Pearson correlation was calculated for the relationship between the children’s age in months and their reaction to the stranger. A weak positive correlation was found (r (26)=. 408, p<. 05), indicating a significant linear relationship between the two variables. Older children tend to respond more positively than younger children. (See Figure 1)

The results of the experiment help support the hypothesis that there is a period of time that negative stranger reaction does occur more frequently. This occurred in the children that were younger than thirty-six months old. These results are similar to what Kagan (1983) said about children having a reaction similar to fear. Kagan pointed out the widening of the eyes and retraction of the mouth. Leitenberg (1990) suggested that stranger reaction marks a change in psychological functioning. This could be an indicator of object permanency. In general, children that are over thirty-six months old will respond in a more positive way than younger children. They are more likely to engage in talking to the person and continuing to carry out the activity they were doing. Younger children are more likely to cry, runaway, or just stay in the position they were left in. This study was done directly after the children’s afternoon nap, which could have affected the results. In doing this study again, there might be more children added to each age group. Also, trying different times of the day may be an avenue to pursue. Looking at children who are not in a child care type situation might be something to explore because children not in child care settings may not have as much exposure to strangers as those who are in child care.

Bird, H. R. (1980). Stranger reaction versus stranger anxiety. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 8, 555-563.Kagan, J. (1983). Stress and coping in early development. Garmezy, N., Rutter, M. (Eds.). Stress, coping, and development in children (pp.191-216). Baltimore, MD, US: The Johns Hopkins University Press.Leitenberg, H. (Ed.). (1990). Handbook of social and evaluation anxiety. NY, US: Plenum Press.


Submitted 4/30/2002 8:02:17 PM
Last Edited 4/30/2002 8:18:29 PM
Converted to New Site 03/09/2009

Rated by 1 users. Average Rating:
Users who logon can rate manuscripts and write reviews.

© 2023 National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse. All rights reserved. The National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse is not responsible for the content posted on this site. If you discover material that violates copyright law, please notify the administrator. This site receives money through the Google AdSense program when users are directed to useful commercial sites. We do not encourage or condone clicking on the displayed ads unless you have a legitimate interest in the advertisement.