Anxiety in Toddlers
Taken from here.
Why it happens
Many parents are taken aback when their easygoing, adventurous baby turns into a clingy insecure toddler. After all, who would’ve thought that a child so young could have such worries? Still, your toddler may wail pitifully if you leave the room for just a minute, shrink from strangers, or practically jump out of his skin at the sound of fireworks and other loud noises. As disconcerting as these anxieties may be for you, they’re all signs that your child’s development is right on track. Anxiety is a normal — and expected — part of a toddler’s cognitive and emotional development.
Look at it from his point of view: It’s a big, scary world out there, and every step your toddler takes toward independence comes with an equal measure of fear about what he’s stepping into. As your child explores the world around him, he also discovers that things can go wrong: The family cat scratches, playmates snatch toys, and parents sometimes disappear for hours at a time. As his thought processes becomes more complex, he’s also able to conjure up a multitude of scary scenarios involving everyday objects (all-consuming vacuum cleaners and bathtub drains, for instance) as well as imaginary threats (the monster under the bed). What’s more, as your child becomes better attuned to his surroundings, he begins to react to stresses he was barely aware of a few months ago.
Just as an adult’s emotional bugaboos are rarely confined to one area, children become anxious for many different reasons. Your toddler may have stranger anxiety, which is triggered now that he can tell the difference between familiar faces and strangers. Separation anxiety, which begins to manifest as early as 9 months but is fairly common in toddlerhood, may also show up. Your toddler may also have developed fear of something in particular, such as insects or water. If your formerly fearless child is suddenly terrified of the neighbor’s dog, the fear may have arisen from an actual incident — your toddler may have been knocked down by a rambunctious pup (an image that may linger in his increasingly complex brain for weeks). Toddlers also have a hard time sorting out “make-believe” from the real world, so this fear may have sprung out of his own imagination or been triggered by a bedtime reading of “The Three Little Pigs” with its Big Bad Wolf.
The good news is that all of these anxieties are completely normal for toddlers and will almost certainly fade as he matures and begins to gain more control over his feelings.
What to do
If something gives your child the willies, do what your instincts tell you to — cuddle and reassure him. But don’t stop there. Be creative about helping your toddler tackle his fears. These tips can help:
Acknowledge the fear. Some of your toddler’s anxieties — his fear of losing you, for example — are utterly normal, and denying them would be unrealistic. Before you dash to the bathroom, for instance, say to him, “I know it scares you when you can’t see Mommy, but I’ll always make sure you’re in a safe place.” Assure him that you look after your own safety, too: “I would never do anything dangerous; I need to stay safe so I can take care of you.”
Talk it out. Toddlers have active imaginations and limited vocabularies, so it’s no wonder they have trouble articulating what they’re feeling. Help your child express his emotions by talking about them. If he shrinks from a new stuffed animal, ask: “Do you feel sad or scared?” If he’s all worked up about an imaginary fiend in the closet, do some prodding to find out what, exactly, is frightening him so: Does the monster have big feet, lots of teeth, or make a terrible sound? Once he’s found the words to describe his fears, reassurances from you will help quell them. Talk about other emotions as well — “You seem really excited about going to the zoo; is that one of your favorite places?” And make sure you give your child equal amounts of attention when he’s feeling cheerful and confident, so that you’re not unwittingly encouraging him to act fearful.
Prepare him. If your toddler gets timid when he encounters new people or enters new places, help dispel his fears ahead of time. When you’re heading out to a birthday party or playgroup, for instance, name the people he’ll know there and mention the new ones he might meet.
Take it slow. Transitions are difficult for everyone, but especially for young children. Rather than thrusting your toddler into a strange environment or letting an unfamiliar person get right in his face, try the slow approach. If he freezes up when you plop him down in the sandbox, for instance, climb in with him and let him sift and scoop from the safety of your lap. Once he’s comfortable, you can spend a few minutes playing next to him, then move to the edge of the sandbox (talking breezily all the while), and finally settle yourself on a bench a few feet away.
Practice separation. Teach your toddler how to tolerate your absences with a little role-playing. When he’s rested and in a playful mood, set a kitchen timer for one minute and exit the room. Ask him to keep watch on the “tick-tock clock,” and reappear as soon as the bell rings. (If watching you leave is too hard, have him exit while you stay behind.) As his confidence grows, slowly lengthen the time you’re apart. This exercise helps your toddler understand sequence, so the next time you’re separated he’ll grasp the order of events: You leave, time passes, and you come back. Knowing what to expect will make this time apart easier for him to bear.
Say good-bye. If typical departures are marked by your toddler howling with anguish, it may be tempting to sneak out when he’s preoccupied. Don’t do it, though. This may only make him cling harder, since he never knows when you’ll disappear without notice. Instead, give him some time to get settled, then quickly and cheerfully bid him adieu. (Extended, tortured good-byes — “Mommy will miss you SO much!”— just make partings harder.) Don’t forget to give your child a time frame, too. Tell him, “Mommy has to go now, but I’ll be back after you eat lunch and have your nap.”
Give him a “substitute you.” A favorite blankie, stuffed animal, or other “lovey” has comforted many a child through daytime separations and nighttime fears. If your toddler grows fond of a particular object, encourage this attachment — the big, bad world will seem a little less scary whenever he has it clutched in his arms.
Ease bedtime fears. If your toddler worries that monsters are hiding under the bed, assure him that you’ll keep those nighttime nasties away. Make his room as cozy and comfortable as possible. Get a cheerful night light to illuminate corners where shadows lurk. Post a funny sign on the closet door that says, “No monsters allowed!” And try not to expose your toddler to scary TV shows, movies, or books, as these will only exacerbate bedtime fears. Next, establish a bedtime routine and stick to it, leaving plenty of time for a bath, a story, and some quiet cuddling before lights-out. To help your toddler go to sleep feeling calm, try to keep evenings as peaceful as possible (now is not the time to hash out a contentious issue with your mate, for instance).
Help him battle his demons. Nightmares are fairly rare with toddlers, but when your child does have one, assure him that it wasn’t real, no matter how vivid it seemed. Then stay with him until he’s calm enough to sleep. If he has the same nightmare more than once, talk it out during the day (when it won’t seem so frightening). After you nail down what the dream’s about, ask him, “What do you think you can do in the dream to help yourself?” If a scary person is chasing him, for instance, suggest that he “get” a dog to chase the person away. If your child believes that the bad guy can fly, walk through walls, or otherwise defy his ability to protect himself, tap into this “magical thinking.” Wave a magic wand to ward off villains and protect him from harm.
Comfort with tall tales. Telling a story can be a great way to explain away scary things. When your toddler trembles during storms, for example, spin a wild yarn about a benign magical being who makes lightning bolts and claps of thunder (this strategy worked for the ancient Greeks, after all).
Stroke his ego. Applaud your toddler’s accomplishments, however small they may be, and never tease or taunt him about his fears (doing so will only intensify his phobia). Boost his self-confidence by making a big deal about his braving the deep, dark depths of the bathtub, for instance, and next time he may even feel brave enough to join you in the swimming pool.
Don’t demand toughness. Your toddler’s already tough, in more ways than you know. Some parents push their kids to be independent before they’re ready, but that strategy is almost sure to backfire. If you pressure your terrified toddler to go down the slide at the playground, for instance, not only will he feel bad about himself, he’ll fear you as well as the slide. Let him develop autonomy naturally — and at his own pace.
Set a good example. Your child takes his cues from you — if you jump when things go bump in the night, hover while he plays, drag out your good-byes, or trill “You’re safe now — Mommy’s here,” every time he faces a challenge, you’ll just reinforce the idea that there’s something to be scared of, and that you’re the only one who can protect him. If you approach new situations confidently and calmly, on the other hand, he’ll eventually learn to do the same.
Because toddlers feel things so intensely, even normal anxiety may strike you as being extreme. Generally speaking, though, a toddler’s fears are cause for concern only if they immobilize him, disrupts his sleep patterns, or dampen his enjoyment of family and friends. If your gentle reassurances don’t ease your child’s trepidation, no matter how much attention you heap on him, consult his pediatrician.