There are often moments where the toddler can’t tell us how she or he feels and has a severe meltdown. It usually occurs when the toddler is in an uncomfortable situation, such as when around strangers. This reaction is called anxiety.
Anxiety is common among children of all ages, including toddlers. It is normal for toddlers to get anxious occasionally, but it could be a recurrent event in some cases. But what causes anxiety in toddlers in the first place?
In this post, we tell you the reasons, signs, and ways to manage toddlers’ anxiety.
What Causes Anxiety In Toddlers?
There is no single reason why a toddler could be anxious. Some amount of anxiety during tense situations or in anticipation of an outcome is common (1). However, when the anxiety affects the toddler’s everyday thoughts, behavior, and other aspects of life, it may indicate an anxiety disorder.
Experts believe that genetics and social factors could play a role in the development of anxiety disorder among toddlers (2). Toddlers with a family history of anxiety disorder could be more susceptible to it. Some toddlers may imbibe the behavior when they observe anxiety in caretakers or family members.
Signs Of Anxiety In Toddlers
Anxiety is a natural emotion, and you may spot it easily when the toddler is presented with triggers. Some of the common triggers are fear of the dark, separation from parents, loud noises, fear of insects, and stranger anxiety.
Below are some of the signs and symptoms of anxiety in toddlers (3).
- Phobias: Have you observed your child is fearful of the unknown or gets scared easily? These are the few initial signs that your toddler may be developing anxiety. Toddlers with anxiety disorders display exaggerated fears that become phobias.
- Intense separation anxiety: Most children worry and cry if they can’t find their parents for a long time. However, anxious toddlers follow their parents like a shadow and can have a severe meltdown when they cannot find their parents. Toddlers with an anxiety disorder could display intense separation anxiety.
- Severe tantrums: Tantrums and kids go hand-in-hand, and toddlers are known to throw most tantrums. However, if your toddler’s tantrums last long, often more than an hour, and occur too frequently, it may indicate anxiety issues.
- Regression: Anxious toddlers tend to display regressive behavior. An example of regressive behavior can be a toilet-trained toddler who wets his/her bed in the night.
- Repetitive behaviors: Toddlers who develop anxiety display repetitive behaviors, such as biting their teeth, flicking their hair, or moving their feet. It may be more frequent in toddlers with anxiety disorders.
- Sensitivity to sound: Toddlers with anxiety could be extra sensitive to loud sounds or become intensely anxious while hearing peculiar sounds, such as those of a vacuum cleaner or fire engine. Toddlers with an anxiety disorder may also display nervousness when in a noisy environment.
- Behavioral issues: Toddlers with anxiety could become easily irritable and display aggression when they find someone too intrusive. Severe anxiety could make some toddlers reclusive.
- Eating issues: Chronic anxiety could dull some toddlers’ appetite and make them excessively picky about eating. Anxiety disorders may also make the toddler feel constant nausea, which may make them gag while eating.
- Physical symptoms: Toddlers with anxiety tend to display several physical symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, muscle aches, fatigue, fast breathing, sweating, shaking, dizziness, and difficulty catching their breath.
- Rigidity in routine: Toddlers with anxiety could display rigidity in routine and may become anxious when the routine is modified. Toddlers with an anxiety disorder may almost display ritualistic preference to their routine and may panic when it is modified.
- Sleep issues: It is common for toddlers with chronic anxiety to have trouble sleeping. A few indicators include the inability to fall asleep at night or during naps. Anxiety disorders could cause a toddler to wake up at night and find it difficult to fall asleep.
A toddler with recurrent anxiety or anxiety disorder is likely to display these symptoms frequently or with severe intensity.
When To See A Doctor?
Consult a doctor if your toddler displays intense anxiety symptoms or displays them frequently since it may indicate anxiety disorder (4). Many symptoms, such as stomach aches and muscle aches, could also occur in other conditions. It is vital to rule out other problems.
You may also see a doctor when your toddler (5):
- Avoids or stops doing things they enjoyed earlier due to anxiety.
- Displays behavior different from others of their age.
- Always has a severe or unusual reaction to stressful situations.
- Displays intense distress for an extended period after encountering a situation that triggered anxiety.
- Has anxiety that interferes in their achievement of developmental milestones.
A doctor may check for any possible underlying causes of symptoms to diagnose anxiety. Depending on the diagnosis, the doctor may refer your toddler to a pediatric psychiatrist or behavior therapist.
How To Help The Toddler Cope With Anxiety?
Parents can help their toddlers manage anxiety, fears, and phobias by identifying triggers and teaching the toddler to manage them. Below are some ways to help your toddler cope with anxiety (6).
- Validate your child’s feelings and emotions: Validating your toddler’s fear and feelings is the first step towards helping them cope with anxiety. Acknowledge the trigger and its potential to cause distress, but not the anxiety. Display empathy and tell the child that the situation is stressful but temporary, and they can sail through it without burdening themselves with anxiety.
- Do not reinforce the child’s fear: While it is essential to accept their fears, you must never reinforce them. If your toddler is anxious, you should never be anxious yourself in anticipation of their behavior since it could encourage the toddler. Be calm and tell the toddler that it is nothing to worry about. Planned ignoring reduces your toddler’s anxiety in situations that can trigger anxiety through observation of caretaker or parent’s behavior.
- Introduce new routines: If your child tends to avoid new routines and displays rigidity to their existing ones, it is advisable to create new routines. It is a way to encourage the toddler to face their fears and learn to break them.
- Teach ways to manage anxiety: You can help the toddler formulate ways to manage the anxiety caused by various triggers. For instance, distraction works great for some toddlers, while others benefit from focusing on positive thoughts. Try different methods and see what works the best.
- Praise their efforts: Toddlers with anxiety need reassurance and constant motivation. If you notice your toddler behaving less anxious than before, praise them with hugs and cuddles. Tell them how they are making progress and that they are a good boy/girl. Praise is essential to reinforce positive behavior among children.
Anxiety and fear are common human emotions, and toddlers experience them too. Parents can help the little one manage anxiety in several ways. Most toddlers become adept at managing anxiety as they grow older. If you suspect your toddler’s anxiety is chronic or severe, do not hesitate to discuss it with a pediatrician.
2. Helping Kids with Anxiety; PsyCom
3. A Guide to Understanding Toddler Anxiety; Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital
4. Anxiety disorders Symptoms & Causes; Boston Children’s Hospital
5. Anxiety and fears in children; Raising Children Network
6. Clark Goldstein, What to Do (and Not Do) When Children Are Anxious; ChildMind