Anxiety in Toddlers
Experiencing fear is a normal part of childhood development as children become more aware of their environment and begin to learn more about the world and their part in it. Notably, all small children will experience anxiety to some extent for a range of different reasons, as this is their natural response to situations where they feel under threat or in danger. However, it is important for parents to be able to recognise the warning signs when their toddler’s anxiety becomes excessive and begins to interfere with their ability to function in age appropriate situations.. The purpose of this article is to clarify the difference between normal and excessive anxiety in toddlers aged 1 – 3, to help parents spot the early warning signs, and offer some tips about how they can help their child manage their worries and overcome their fears.
What are the Symptoms of Anxiety in Toddlers?
There are many different ways in which anxiety in toddlers can present itself and some of these may be more obvious than others. The important part to remember is that experiencing fear is a normal part of growing up – it becomes problematic however, when a child’s worries begin to interfere with family life and their ability to engage in age appropriate activities. Some examples of typical anxieties in toddlers include:
- Anxiety in social situations – fear of being judged negatively by others in situations where they become the focus of attention (eg: extremely shy behaviour, becoming extremely withdrawn around others, becoming distressed or freezing up and not being able to speak in social situations including parties, play groups, or when meeting other children).
- Specific phobias of situations or objects – this may have manifested after witnessing a traumatic event itself, or may have been created by their imagination after hearing negative things about it (eg: fear of spiders, animals, the dark, water, swimming, the bath or toilet, clowns, loud noises).
- Fear of strangers – feeling distressed around new people (eg: excessive crying, tantrums, or excessively clingy behaviour in the presence of unfamiliar people – regardless of how friendly they are).
- Day-care anxiety – may be rooted in separation anxiety or fear of something in particular to do with the day care environment (eg: tantrums and excessively clingy behaviour or complaints of feeling physically sick when it’s time to leave).
- Separation anxiety – intense fear of parting with parents or not having them in constant sight for fear that something bad may happen; either to themselves or their parents (eg: difficulty sleeping in their own bed, becoming distressed when parents leave the room, excessive crying or tantrums when having to part with parents for day-care or when going to social activities without them).
- Generalised anxiety – experience anxiety over various things that occur in everyday life (eg: fear of becoming hurt, being in danger, becoming sick, or being in unfamiliar situations).
How can I help?
- Help your child to identify their emotions –
Asking your child to label what they are feeling when they are distressed – whether they are scared, nervous, sad, or angry, will not only help them to become more aware of why they are feeling that way, but by verbally expressing what’s bothering them, it often helps them to realise that their worries are in fact unrealistic and not as scary as their imagination had blown them up to be.
- Don’t dismiss their worries –
While children’s worries may seem trivial – and at times even comical, it does not make what they are experiencing any less real or scary for them. It is very important for parents not to dismiss their child’s worries, or push them into facing their fears too early as this could only make matters worse. The best thing parents can do is to talk through and rationalise their child’s fears with them, assuring them that they would never let anything bad happen to them. By acknowledging their fears, your child will feel more comfortable about approaching you about their worries instead of bottling them up inside.
- Prepare your child for new situations –
Ensure that you prepare your child in advance about what to expect in a new situation that they may not have not been in before, or that you predict may be distressing for them. Doing so may prevent them from feeling overwhelmed with uncertainty and fear when the time comes.
- Help them face their fears –
Encourage your child to face their fears and reward them with praise when they do. Try to identify with your child what exactly it is that they are afraid of so that you can find ways of tackling these with them. If for example, your child is afraid of the dark because of the “monsters in the cupboard” you could open the cupboard to prove that there is nothing in there apart from their clothes, and encourage them to go and see for themselves. Once you have done this a number of times, you could then encourage them to face their fears and open the cupboard on their own.
How is anxiety in toddlers treated?
The first step is identifying your toddler’s anxiety as problematic. If you are still unsure and are worried that your toddler’s anxiety may be interfering with their involvement in day to day activities, it is strongly advised to seek a professional evaluation from a psychologist. The most effective form of treatment for anxiety is called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) performed with the ongoing guidance and support from a specialising psychologist. CBT for toddlers involves identifying their irrational thoughts and replacing these with more realistic ones, by GRADUALLY exposing them to their fears. Parents are an integral part of therapy as they are the ones who “put the strategies in place”. Due to this, most sessions will involve the parents and toddlers.
Our recommended therapist at Anxiety House …
Dr Angela Randell – Clinical Psychologist
What is your experience?
- Seven years’ experience with clients with anxiety and other mental health issues
- Senior Psychologist at Child and Youth Mental Health Service
- Worked in both public and private settings
- Inpatient and community treatment experience
- Clinical supervisor, STAP trained
- Child development researcher, and presenter at international conferences
Sophie Lucas is our Anxiety House blogger and is studying Bachelor of Communications at UQ. Sophie is passionate about anxiety recovery and loves to write about research and provide EDUCATION about anxiety. Sophie and Director Dr Emily O’Leary carefully think about each topic and try and provide the most up to date information. We have a number of scheduled blogs coming up, but we really want to hear your IDEAS! What topics would YOU like to know more about?
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