As a mom, one of the most heartbreaking feelings is watching your children suffer from anxiety and not knowing how to help them. This article will help you recognize signs of toddler anxiety and learn a few strategies and tricks for how to help your toddler’s anxiety.
It seems that no matter what age our babies are, us moms always have something to stress about. When you have a new baby, we are constantly worrying about milk, formula, colic, their weight, development, tummy gas, and sleep.
As our children turn into toddlers and preschoolers and start going to daycare, we start worrying about new things: Will they adjust the daycare well? Will they make friends? Do they have signs of anxiety? And so on… (don’t even get me started on teenage years!)
Anxiety is an emotion we all experience, including young children.
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I reached out to psychologists and other professionals in the child anxiety field in order to get their expert advice on childhood anxiety and to share it with you. Please keep in mind that I am NOT a doctor or child psychologist. Every child is different, so if you have any concerns, always talk to your child’s pediatrician and healthcare providers to find solutions tailored for your child, instead of simply relying on blogs for information.
Signs of toddler anxiety
The problem with identifying anxiety in young children is that they are not able to simply tell us that they are feeling anxious.
In kids ages 2-5, signs of anxiety can be recognized through physical symptoms of their behavior, according to child psychologist Dr. Amy Nasamran (founder of Atlas Psychology) and Head Nurse of Norland College Paula McLaren (founder of Teething to Tantrums). Some signs of anxiety are:
- Complaining of headaches or stomach aches
- Not wanting to go to daycare or school
- Having tantrums or meltdowns, aggressive attitudes, or emotional outbursts
- Difficulty sleeping or eating
- Waking with nightmares
- Asking questions repeatedly even though they already know the answer
- Crying more
- Having difficulty separating from a parent even after time to warm up
- Becoming more clingy
- Engaging less in activities
- Lack of concentration
- Increased thumb sucking or need for comfort toy or blanket
Children may show anxiety in other ways too. As a general rule, if a young child’s behavior changes drastically and they show any of the above signs, then they may be experiencing anxiety, according to Paula McLaren.
What causes anxiety in children
Some people are naturally more anxious than others, but there are certain life events that can trigger or worsen our anxiety. This is true for kids as well as adults. If you think your child is showing signs of anxiety, think about whether there have been any changes or difficulties in their life, such as:
- Moving houses
- Starting or changing school, daycare, nannies, or summer camp
- Parental separation
- Problems at home
- Family member or child spending time in the hospital
- Death in the family
- Changes in routine (such as what happened in 2020 with everyone suddenly being home and cancelled plans)
- Parents going through a stressful time (children can sense this!)
- Parents giving children partial attention (because of phones, work, or being busy with life)
Young children like routine and for things to be constant and predictable. One of the best ways to prevent anxiety is to provide a stable home and loving environment based on reliable routines where children feel heard and loved, according to Paula McLaren.
However, even if all these things are in place, it is normal for some children to experience anxiety.
RELATED: Tips for Reducing Toddler Meltdowns
Normal vs worrisome behavior
Many of the behaviors listed above are also typical for many kids. I mean… Separation anxiety from parents is very common. Also, lots of babies and toddlers are afraid of unfamiliar faces, monsters, the dark, or large animals. And what two year old doesn’t get attached to their blankie? What three year old concentrates well on activities?? Mine sure doesn’t.
It is totally normal for children to be scared of new experiences, or to be afraid of the dark, according to Brigida Aversa, COO and Co-founder of Tiny Hoppers. However, if your child’s behaviors are interfering with their every day life, such as sleeping eating, leaving the house, seeing family of friends at school, then that might be a reason to see their doctor and see if you can reduce their anxiety in some way.
Handling anxiety in toddlers and young children
According to Paula McLaren, the steps to handling child anxiety are:
- Spot the signs
- Identify the cause
- Sympathize and acknowledge the cause
- Offer plenty of love and support
- Remain calm and be consistent
- Make any changes to alleviate anxiety wherever possible
How parents can help with toddler anxiety
There is no one correct answer for reducing child anxiety, since every child is different. That is why I stress that it is important to see a professional for your specific situation. However, here are some tips from the experts:
- It might seem counterintuitive, but it is important that parents don’t provide too much reassurance or “rescue” kids from situations. Providing too much reassurance can lead kids to become dependent on seeking reassurance when they feel worried. Removing them from the situation doesn’t provide them with the opportunity to learn how to face their fears and may also reinforce for them that it’s something to be scared of. Instead, parents can help reduce anxiety in young kids by validating their feelings (“I know that sounds scary”) and praising any tolerance or brave behavior. – Dr. Nasamran.
- Make sure you are not dividing attention between your child and your digital devices. When you’re spending your child, put away your phone and stop thinking about work emails. Toddlers become anxious when they sense their parents’ attention is elsewhere. For a strong, secure bond with their toddlers, parents need to put boundaries around their own tech use, such as by creating tech-free times and areas in the household, such as not bringing a phone into a child’s sleep area in the hours before bedtime. – Jenifer Joy Madden, founder of DurableHuman.com
- Ensure your child’s anxiety is not caused by them using digital devices too much. Psychologists in multiple countries have identified the new condition called “Virtual Autism” among kids under five who engage for hours a day with screen media, such as watching YouTube videos. The children begin to display autistic-like behavior, such as avoiding eye contact. They can even regress in their behavior and language, according to Jenifer Joy Madden.
- Comfort your anxious child and model positive responses. Help your child with relaxation techniques while showing non-fearful and appropriate reactions to the source of your child’s anxiety. Instead of avoiding the fear, help your child learn to tolerate the fear. Allow them to gradually expose to the source while using relaxation methods will help them learn to accept the distress and eventually learn that there is nothing to fear. – Brigida Aversa
Some relaxation methods that work for our son are slowly counting to 10 and breathing 10 times, or singing a song a few times in a row.
- Use the ‘see it, say it’ method to help children to recognize and understand their anxiety. For example “I can see that you’re feeling angry. You threw the toy because you’re angry and you’re worried about staying at preschool today.” – Sarah Hurst – arthurwears.com
- Use emotion flashcards regularly to demonstrate different emotions and talk about scenarios where you have felt a certain way. – Sarah Hurst
These flashcards are a great way to build vocabulary, too!
- If your child chews or bites clothes, provide them with a chew toy or a chew necklace or key ring so that your child can get the sensory feedback they need in a more appropriate way. – Sarah Hurst
- If a toddler is anxious about being left alone at night, invest in a nightlight, play audio tapes and keep to a steady and healthy bedtime routine, says Paula McLaren. Other parents create “monster sprays” (a spray bottle with water) to spray those pesky monsters under the bed, or come up with other creative solutions to help their children relax in their room and forget about their fears, such as this night sky nightlight.
- If a toddler is anxious when meeting new people, avoid making them the center of attention and let them stand on the side lines and observe at first. – Paula McLaren
- If a toddler is anxious about a big change, such as moving to a new house or getting a new sibling, avoid making any big changes like moving them from a crib to a bed or starting potty training at the same time. – Paula McLaren
- If your child is experiencing anxiety because of a developmental milestone they are not ready for, such as moving to a real bed or potty training, this can trigger anxiety. If this is the case then it is alright to put the brakes on these steps and leave it for a few weeks and then try again. We had to do this with potty training when we realized that the 3-day potty training method won’t work for us. Most toddlers will adjust to a change in routine eventually and overcome what has made them anxious as long as their fears are treated with respect and understanding, but making a huge fuss over the cause should be avoided. – Paula McLaren
- Reading children’s books about anxiety can be a great resource for family to teach and have discussions with their kids about anxiety. Many of these books are already written in age-appropriate language that can help kids understand and relate to characters in the book. – Dr. Nasamran
- Show your children that you respect them and point out that they haven’t done anything wrong. Make them aware that it’s okay to express their feelings. Regular story reading or role play can also be useful as it’s a proven method to focus the mind on other, more pleasant areas. – Emilie Mason
Anxiety about school or daycare transitions
If your child is anxious about daycare or school transitions, there are a few things you can do to help, according to Alison Wilson, Senior Director of Curriculum and Innovation at Stratford School.
- Read stories and books that talk about the subject, such as The Night Before Preschool or David Goes to School.
- Pack a favorite lunch together the night before, letting your child choose and giving them pride in making their own meal.
- Drive by the school in advance if possible. Discuss the drop-off routine and share your excitement around their transition. Don’t forget to look at the new playground and talk about of the things your child will enjoy outside!
- Set an achievable goal for the day together. Ask your child one thing that they hope to accomplish. Example: They might ask a friend their name (model and practice this skill), try a new school snack, or go down the slide, etc.
- With safety measures in place around wearing masks, you might want to practice wearing one with your child if they have not yet. Invite your child to be a part of the process by having them select a mask with a favorite character or color. Ensure the fit is comfortable and practice wearing. Remind your little one that masks help keep us healthy and superheroes wear masks, too!
Read more tips for switching daycares.
I hope these tips help you and your family and come in handy if you are wondering whether your toddler is experiencing anxiety. If you have any comments, please leave them below for me, or get in touch with the experts who offered their advice – I linked to their websites throughout the article. And remember, always talk with your child’s pediatrician or another healthcare professional if you have any questions about your child!
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