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Understanding and Managing Anxiety in Toddlers

Hannah Pomfret

Mar 4, 2024

Toddler Mental Health Matters

In recent years, the importance of mental health has been increasingly recognized in all age groups, including toddlers. The experiences encountered during these formative years are pivotal in shaping a child’s emotional and psychological health. As such, gaining insight into and nurturing the mental health of toddlers is vital. It not only contributes to their immediate happiness and comfort but also sets the stage for their long-term development and well-being.

What is Anxiety in Toddlers?

Anxiety in toddlers, like in adults, is a natural emotional response to perceived threats or stressful situations. However, for toddlers, who are still developing their understanding of the world, anxiety can be more challenging to manage. It often manifests as intense fear or worry that is persistent, beyond what is expected for their developmental stage.

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Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety in Toddlers

Identifying a child’s anxiety presents unique challenges due to their limited ability to verbalize emotions. It’s recommended for parents and caregivers to look for certain behavioral cues that may indicate child anxiety.

Toddler Anxiety Cues

  • Frequent Tantrums: It’s not uncommon for many children to experience tantrums, sometimes children may have an average of one to two tantrums per day, but when these are more frequent and intense, they may be a sign of feeling overwhelmed. This is often because toddlers lack the ability to articulate complex emotions, leading to frustration and outbursts.
  • Increased Clinginess or Separation Anxiety: Anxiety in toddlers often manifests through a heightened sense of distress when separated from their primary caregivers. This behavior is a reflection of their need for security and comfort, which they associate strongly with familiar figures. It’s important to note that over the past couple of years, this has become more common in light of the pandemic lockdown.
  • Difficulty Sleeping: Anxious feelings can significantly disrupt a toddler’s sleep patterns. Trouble in either falling asleep or staying asleep can be a key indicator of underlying anxiety. This disruption in rest can further exacerbate feelings of anxiety, creating a challenging cycle.
  • Fidgeting, Restlessness, Difficulty Sitting Still: These physical behaviors can be outward signs of internal anxiety. Toddlers may exhibit constant movement, unable to find a state of physical calm, mirroring their internal state of unease.
  • Unexplained Physical Symptoms Such as Headaches and Stomachaches: Emotional distress in toddlers can sometimes manifest physically. Complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or other unexplained physical symptoms without a clear medical cause can be a sign of anxiety.

It’s important to observe these signs of a possible anxiety disorder in a holistic context. Each child is unique, and these behaviors must be considered in conjunction with their overall environment and experiences.

Anxiety Manifests Differently At Certain Ages

It’s essential to recognize that a child’s anxiety can manifest differently as they grow. The developmental stage of a child plays a significant role in how anxiety is expressed.

Anxiety at Age 1

At this stage, a common form of anxiety is related to separation from parents. This is a period when infants start to understand their dependence on primary caregivers for comfort and security. When parents are not in sight, children feel anxious and may express anxiety through crying or showing visible distress. This reaction is a normal part of development as they learn to cope with temporary separations.

Anxiety at Age 2

As toddlers become more aware of their surroundings, their scope of anxiety can widen. Around age two, a fear of strangers or new environments might emerge. This is a time when toddlers are exploring more and starting to understand that the world extends beyond their immediate family. Anxiety at this age can be a response to the unfamiliar– a natural part of their expanding awareness and cognitive development.

Anxiety at Age 3

By the age of three, as a child’s imagination begins to flourish, anxiety may take on more specific forms. This anxiety may contribute to a three-year old’s defiance and should be addressed accordingly. Fears such as being afraid of the dark, or imaginary creatures, are common. These fears are indicative of their developing mind’s ability to conjure up scenarios that they find frightening, even if they are not based in reality.

It’s important that parents and caregivers understand these developmental nuances in anxiety. Recognizing the normal progression of fears and anxieties at different ages can help in providing appropriate support and reassurance to the child. It’s also crucial for adults to model calm and reassuring behavior and to create a safe environment where an anxious toddler can feel secure to express their fears and concerns.

Common Causes of Anxious Children

There are various factors that can contribute to anxiety symptoms in a child’s life. Understanding these common causes is essential for providing the appropriate support and intervention. Some notable factors include:

  • Joining Preschool: The transition to preschool is a significant change and may trigger some of your child’s fears. Moving into an environment that is new and filled with unfamiliar faces can be quite stressful. This change disrupts their routine and can induce anxiety as they adjust to new surroundings, people, and expectations.
  • Living in an Unstable Home Environment: Stability and predictability are cornerstones of a toddler’s sense of security. When their home environment is unstable, whether due to familial discord, frequent moves, or other disruptions, it can lead them to feel anxious. Toddlers thrive on routine and consistency; without it, they may feel unsafe and insecure, triggering anxiety disorders.
  • Death of a Family Member: The concept of loss and death is profoundly challenging for toddlers to understand and cope with. The absence of a loved one can create a significant emotional upheaval, leading to anxiety. This period can be overwhelming as they grapple with the permanence of loss and the accompanying emotional reactions.
  • Injury or Illness: Experiencing personal health issues or witnessing sickness or injury in close family members can be a source of anxiety for toddlers. Their limited understanding of health and recovery processes can lead to confusion and fear, particularly if they see significant changes in their or their family members’ daily lives due to health issues.

It’s vital for parents and caregivers to be attuned to these potential stressors in their toddlers’ lives. Recognizing the root causes of anxiety can aid in addressing them effectively, providing reassurance, and establishing a supportive and nurturing environment that helps mitigate these anxieties.

Strategies to Manage Anxiety in Toddlers

There are strategies parents and caregivers can use as a guide to reduce and manage anxious children. These strategies are rooted in creating a nurturing environment that addresses the unique needs of this developmental stage:

  • Creating a Safe and Predictable Environment: It’s essential to provide toddlers with a sense of safety and predictability. This involves creating a home environment where they feel secure, loved, and understood. A predictable environment helps reduce anxiety as toddlers know what to expect.
  • Encouraging Expression of Feelings Through Words or Play: Since toddlers may not have the verbal skills to express complex emotions, encouraging them to express their feelings through play or using simple words can be very effective. Play therapy, for example, allows toddlers to communicate their emotions in a non-verbal way, making it easier for them to express what they’re feeling. One great tool for expressing emotions is the feelings wheel, take a look at how to use the feelings/emotions wheel.
  • Offering Reassurance and Comfort: Providing consistent reassurance and comfort to a toddler experiencing anxiety is crucial. This might involve physical comfort like hugs, or verbal reassurance, letting them know they are safe and supported. Additionally, we want to teach kids to know when they feel ready for certain experiences. Verbal reassurance can assist with this. For example, by restating simple phrases like ‘be careful’ to ‘I notice it is slippery. You can move your body slower to feel more comfortable.’
  • Gradual Exposure to Feared Situations in a Controlled Manner: his technique involves slowly and carefully exposing the toddler to the situations that cause anxiety, in a controlled and supportive way. This technique helps anxious toddlers learn to cope with their fears gradually and gain confidence. For example, parents can use phrases like, ‘Two things are true: you can feel the fear and do it anyway. The more we practice, the more confident we feel.’
  • Establishing Consistent Routines: Consistency and structure are incredibly comforting to toddlers. Establishing and maintaining consistent daily routines can provide a sense of stability and predictability, helping to alleviate anxiety.

Implementing these strategies requires patience and consistency. It’s also important for caregivers to be attuned to the toddler’s responses and adjust strategies as needed. Each child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. In cases where anxiety is severe or persistent, it may be beneficial to seek professional guidance from a child psychologist or therapist. At ALTC, our experienced therapists use a combination of CBT, Play Therapy, Exposure Therapy, DBT, Art Therapy, and Family Therapy to create an effective treatment plan for your child and family. We have some great resources for understanding what to expect when bringing a child to therapy.

Should You Get Professional Help?

Seeking professional help is advisable if:

  • Anxiety interferes significantly with daily activities.
  • There is a noticeable decline in social interactions or play.
  • Physical symptoms persist or worsen.
  • You feel overwhelmed or unsure how to help your child.

How to Support a Toddler Experiencing Anxiety Disorder

Supporting a toddler with anxiety involves:

  • Being patient and understanding.
  • Validating their feelings without reinforcing fears.
  • Offering comfort and security.
  • Avoiding overprotective behaviors that may reinforce anxiety.
  • Modeling calm and positive behaviors.

Tips for Parents to Manage Their Own Emotions

Creating emotional safety involves co-regulation, as children often mirror adult behaviors. This includes:

  • Practicing self-care and stress management.
  • Seeking support from family, friends, or professionals.
  • Being mindful of your reactions to stress.
  • Prioritizing your mental health to provide a stable environment for your child.

Understanding and addressing toddler anxiety is a vital step in ensuring their healthy emotional development. As caregivers, it’s important to provide an ongoing supportive and nurturing environment, equipping them with the tools to manage their emotions effectively.

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