Recognizing Signs of Anxiety in Toddlers

Recognizing Signs of Anxiety in Toddlers

Anxiety is not reserved exclusively for parents. Toddlers can feel stressed out too, but toddler anxiety is often misinterpreted as something else. You might think your little one is just tired or has a belly ache, but it’s possible stress is the cause of those symptoms. So it’s important to recognize when your child is feeling tense.

If you pick up on the cues early, then you can begin teaching your toddler healthy coping skills for anxiety at a young age. Keep reading to learn more about the signs of anxiety, common stressors, and how to help your toddlers cope with anxiety.

Know the Signs of Anxiety in Toddlers

Toddlers can have both physiological and behavioral reactions to stress. You might notice your child begin exaggerating certain behaviors, avoiding certain things, or being unusually defiant. 

Some common behavioral signs of toddler anxiety include:

  • Unusual rapid mood shifts or being extra clingy
  • The emergence of a new fear (such as darkness, being alone, or of strangers)
  • Acting out at daycare or preschool
  • Hiding, taking away, or protecting items of insignificance
  • Refusing to go to a certain person, place, sitter, school, or daycare
  • Development of a nervous habit

Some common physiological reactions to stress in toddlers include:

  • Tummy aches
  • Potty accidents
  • Trouble sleeping/bedtime or naptime 
  • Decreased appetite 
  • Physically acting out / hitting or kicking

5 Most Common Stressors for Toddlers

Big Family Change

For example, a new baby can make a young toddler feel jealous. A death in the family can create stress born out of confusion.

Separation Anxiety

Easily the most commonly recognized stressor for young children. Separation anxiety can begin as early as 4 months and peak around 9 months of age.

Over-Packed Schedules

This often leads to fatigue and overstimulation in toddlers, both of which can cause stress and anxiety.

Drastic Change in Routine

Routine is critical to a young child feeling secure. Toddlers love to know what’s coming next. So moving homes, family turmoil, changing schedules, or routines very suddenly can lead to anxiety. 

A “Scary” Movie or Book

Nightmares can start as early as 2-years-old. Fictional stories can cause distress or anxiety in children. Even if you’re not exposing your toddler to “scary” things, characters in books or cartoons can still seem frightening to small children.

Help Your Little One Cope With Stress 

Be a calming presence

Toddlers imitate adult behavior. So, if you’re feeling unusually stressed, it’s likely your children will sense the tension and mimic your response. This is why our pediatricians often recommend parents “drop and go” and not make a “big show” when sending a toddler to daycare or school. Toddlers are always watching us to help inform opinions and behaviors. If you are acting calm even when you don’t feel it, you’ll help your little one feel calm as well.

Social Stories

It’s a great way to help toddlers deal with separation, a new routine, and change. Social stories are used to prepare young children for potentially anxiety-producing social situations. An example might be: My First Day At Daycare or I’m Going to Be a Big Brother. You can help your toddler better understand what’s happening, and why it’s happening. Social stories can also help toddlers learn to talk about their feelings.

The Importance of Quiet Time

At Thrive Pediatrics, we often refer to quiet time as “sensory breaks.” Make time to break up the sensory input every day with a quiet activity. Read a book together, have a snack, or make a craft. Whatever you do just make sure it’s calm, relaxing, and limits stimulation.

Avoid Over-scheduling

Packing too many activities into one day (or several days) is bound to toss babies and toddlers off their routines. Sometimes, it can be unavoidable, but try and keep your schedule as predictable as possible. It will ease your stress and your children’s as well. If you do have a busy day, remember to pack a healthy snack. Snacks can be a great way to diffuse a stressful situation and tame a tantrum quickly by distracting your toddler for a few moments.

Say No to Sugar

A cookie after dinner isn’t going to result in an epic sugar crash, but too many sweets can cause added anxiety for you and your child. The sugar-rollercoaster can throw off bedtime, naptime and lead to tantrum behaviors. Remember, out of sight out of mind. If you have tins full of extra sweets or cookies, keep them hidden or toss them out.

If you liked this Thrive Pediatrics blog, check out these related articles:
Recognizing Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder
The Benefits of Choosing a Holistic Pediatrician for Your Family



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