toddler anxiety: recognizing the signs and symptoms

TODDLER ANXIETY: RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS

Call it naivety or call it ignorance, but I had no idea that toddler anxiety was a thing! Now, I knew that kids naturally develop phobias and fears, but anxiety? When I think back to when I really noticed that I was anxious person, it wasn’t super apparent until I had real worries (i.e. bills, safety of my children, job security, etc). But who am I to decide what a real worry is? Who am I to say that my kids don’t have anything to worry about just because they are young.

Out of respect for my children’s privacy, I won’t get too specific, but recently we have been having problems with one of our sweet babies. We thought it was simply a behavior issue, so we started to crack down significantly on discipline. Our next thought was that they were showing out because of boredom, so we started looking into possible activities for them to participate in. Then I talked to my dad, and he said that I used to have the same behavior problems. I was angry a lot, and would act out pretty badly. Apparently, the child therapist they took me to said that I had anxiety. In my dad’s opinion, the child in question was also showing signs of anxiety.

I began reaching out to child therapist’s and psychologist’s in the area to see what their professional opinion was. They all agreed that anxiety sounded like it may be the culprit. Naturally, being the research freak I am, I started researching it. Toddler anxiety is a lot more common than we may realize, so I want to share my findings with you all in the case that it may be affecting your family.

Signs and Symptoms

  1. Change in sleep pattern
    • If your child is sleeping more often, or maybe refusing to sleep, it may be a good indicator.
  2. Change in eating habits
    • It could be eating more or less, but it can also be aversions to foods they typically LOVE or cravings for foods they have always HATED
      • We all know that toddlers are funny with food, so keep in mind that showing one of these symptoms does not automatically mean your child is battling anxiety.
  3. Sudden changes in emotions (mood swings)
    • Their mood swings could be anywhere on the broad spectrum, but take note especially if they are abnormally sad, angry, clingy, or withdrawn.
  4. Increased crying or tantrums
    • Especially if your child isn’t very vocal about their feelings, this may be the only way that they know to express how they are feeling. As an adult, I sometimes want to scream and throw stuff, so we shouldn’t really be surprised if our child does it sometimes.
  5. Nightmares and fears at bedtime
    • Monsters in the closet or under the bed? HAVE to have a nightlight or TV on at night? Wake up periodically throughout the night with nightmares? Absolutely has to have a parent lay down with them at night to go to sleep? These are ALL signs of anxiety.
  6. Physical ailments
    • These are typically presented as headaches or stomachaches.
  7. Anxious tics, coughs, or body movements
  8. Frequent reliance on habits such as hair chewing or thumb-sucking
    • My personal habit is tapping my fingers on the table or whatever surface is near me.
  9. Change in bowel movements
    • This is typically seen in children whose anxiety is related to potty-training (more on that later).

If you notice these signs and symptoms in your child, and feel they are getting worse, please seek the advice of a professional.

Causes:

  1. Separation Anxiety
    • Perhaps the number one cause of anxiety in toddlers, can develop as early as 7 months old. Some children don’t develop separation anxiety until 18 months-2 1/2 years old. If an older child is showing sudden signs of separation anxiety, it is likely caused by another issue, such as bullying or abuse.
  2. Changes in Family Dynamic or Big family changes
    • While a new sibling is a positive thing, and a move can be beneficial for everyone, a toddler has to readjust everything that they know. This can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for a toddler.
  3. Potty Training
    • Beginning the process before a child is ready can be a HUGE stressor in your toddler’s life! (See my potty training tips HERE!)
  4. Overwhelming Schedules
    • Toddlers love to stop and smell the roses. And lick them, taste them, pull them apart to see the insides, etc. They are little explorers trying to take everything in! When planning your day, try to allow time for them to do what they are wired to do! I can tell a huge difference in my kids’ temperaments if we are bustling from appointment to appointment versus letting them move at their own pace.
    • Don’t try to involve them in too much as far as outside activities are concerned. One sport is more than enough for a toddler to process at a time.
  5. Unexpected World Events
    • Our babies feed off of our emotions. They also feed off of their surroundings. Be careful about what you listen to or watch around your kids. The evening news nowadays is mostly negative, and if you watch the news with your sweet baby in the room, they are taking it in the same way that you are. However, because of their innocence it can be detrimental to their mental health. This goes for movies, music, TV, etc.
  6. Genetics

How to Treat Toddler Anxiety:

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health physician or other licensed professional. Always seek the advice of your child’s pediatrician.
  1. Stay calm and ACKNOWLEDGE their feelings
    • First and foremost, the last thing they need is to be told how terrible they are behaving or that they are crazy. Their feelings are real, and they look to us for validation. Let them know that you are there for them, you want to help them, and that you understand.
  2. Stick to a schedule
    • Toddlers in general do better when they know what is going to happen throughout the day. If they know “nap time comes after lunch” then it won’t be a surprise to them and they can process it easier. Anxious toddlers thrive on a schedule! If you don’t have one, and don’t know where to start, be sure to subscribe to the Mama of Kings Weekly Newsletter for exclusive tips in the upcoming newsletter (3/25/18)!
  3. Set aside time for breaks
    • Whether it be nap-time, a break from home school work, family movie time, or a designated quiet time during the day, make sure they have time to de-stress and do what they want! We have an hour of quiet time every day where everyone goes to their own special place in the house to read or play with dolls quietly. They LOVE this time they get to themselves!
    • Self-care is just as important for them as it is for us. I think that teaching them the importance of taking time for themselves at such a young age will benefit them as adults also. Whereas I struggle to find me-time as an adult, and often ignore the importance, my 4-year-old knows how to effectively tell us that she needs me-time.
  4. Plan ahead and allow them time to process
    • Like I said earlier, toddlers are little explorers and want to take everything in. Try to allow time for them to do so. When scheduling appointments, try not to schedule them back to back. If you know you have to be somewhere at a certain time, allow enough time to get ready without rushing.
  5. Monitor TV exposure
    • Watch their TV shows with them so you can determine if they really are appropriate or not. Be careful what you watch around them.
  6. Extra hugs, kisses, and tickles
    • Sometimes the best medicine is love. Loving on my babies ALWAYS makes them feel better. And a good tickle session never hurts. 🙂
  7. Seek professional help
    • If you feel that nothing is helping your baby, you have exhausted all other options, or their condition worsens, find a good therapist or counselor that specializes in the children’s mental health. Play therapy is typically recommended for children ages 5 and under.

Lastly…

Mama, DON’T BLAME YOURSELF. I know how easy it is to assume that you somehow damaged your child or are the cause for their problems. Don’t beat yourself up. If you need someone to talk to, my inbox on any of my social media accounts is always open. Feel free to reach out to me, even if it is just to vent. As mamas, we have to support each other through the trenches. So if no one else is, I will be there for you! Don’t give up!

Ariel King is a Stay-At-Home mom to her three children, Lana, Ace, and Norah. Writing and researching are two of her biggest passions. People say that she is full of all kinds of useless knowledge, and it is even rumored she has a Google PhD. She is not a typical mainstream mom, imperfect in every way, but is on a mission to encourage and inspire other moms. Her belief is that no one should feel alone in the day to day of motherhood.

26 thoughts on “TODDLER ANXIETY: RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS

  1. This is a great post. My two year old suddenly became ‘scared’ of the dark (I personally blame the book llama llama red pajama). We’ve worked a bunch on it and the biggest solution was a nightlight he could have in bed with him. Sometimes practical solutions after you listen to your child’s fears are great.

    1. Same! One of my kiddos was suddenly scared of monsters and blamed it on the book “Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster”. We later re-read it and I put great emphasis on the page that talked about how monsters are actually sweet. I am thinking of getting one of those push lights to put in the kids room, maybe one over each of their beds. They both woke up in the middle of the night last night and were crying because of the dark.

  2. This was a very good read! I never even considered anxiety in children. I have a 17-month-old son, & I typically chalk his behavior up to him growing and learning. Right now, he’s just a curious toddler, but this helps me realize that as he gets older and our lives change, I will need to make sure I’m paying close attention this behavior, attitudes, and feelings and to not dismiss them as “growing up.”

    1. I felt TERRIBLE when I discovered that my child was dealing with anxiety! Like you said, I was just thinking that it was a phase and something they would just grow out of. So, so glad that I was able to find the cause before things got any worse!

    1. I feel like it’s the best idea I have had in 4 years! Lol. But seriously, we all get touched out, tired of the noise, tired of everything. We ALL need that emotional reset.

  3. Great post and very informative! My son started experiencing light separation anxiety so now when I leave the room or dad does and he’s left with someone other than us, he will cry for about 2 mins then call it a day.

  4. I love this! I am all about the schedule 🙂 My son is happier and I keep my sanity. I do have to make sure to plan out time for unstructured play though. I tend to get wrapped up in the timeline and I sometimes forget that my little guy just needs time to do his thing.

  5. I love the new generation of parenting where we treat our kids as people and not tiny humans who should only be seen and not heard. I’m so glad to hear that you moved past disciple and mislabeling your child as a problem child and got them the help they needed. I pray that this will be the standard very soon!

    1. Yes! Children who are ignored when they are young, will be insecure as they grow older! I am so ashamed that I even mislabeled her in the first place, but “know better, do better” is my new motto in just about everything parenting related these days! Your lips to God’s hears, hun!

  6. This is such a great read!!! My toddler all of a sudden started walking up randomly, crying in terror or she whines in her sleep. I never thought of anxiety. Thank you for this post, is opened my eyes. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before because I have anxiety.

    1. Exactly! Anxiety would have never even crossed my mind if it hadn’t been for my dad bringing it to my attention that I dealt with it as a child! I remembered going to counseling, but thought it was for other reasons. I am so glad my post could help you! I always say that if my posts can open the eyes of just ONE mama, I have accomplished my goal!

  7. Great advice! If you haven’t already, check out the work of Dr. Gabor Mate. He talks about ADD symptoms that develop because of parental stress/anxiety. So it’s very common that the child picks up anxiety and stresses which later manifest themselves as AD(H)D, addictions, etc. His books, videos and articles are well worth reading and if you suffer from anxiety, I cannot recommend them highly enough! @www.RainyDaySunnyPlay.com

  8. This was such an eye-opening read. I had no idea that some of the behaviors you mentioned could be signs of anxiety. I will definitely be more mindful now. Thank you for sharing this!

  9. This is such a great post!! I suffer from anxiety but never had it diagnosed until I was an adult. When I think back to my childhood, I was absolutely an anxious child. My parents never caught it, and a lot of the anxiety stemmed from fears that I kept to myself. Thank you for sharing this information.

    1. I definitely never would have thought to consider anxiety. I just assumed that my baby was showing out, and I hate that I just assumed. What has been the most help for them?

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