Babies and toddlers tend to live very much in the present, which is why older children with active imaginations and a greater awareness of the world, are more inclined to worry. That said, it is a normal developmental phase, that as infants become toddlers, their knowledge of their surroundings increases, and so does their capacity to develop fears and phobias.
But when trying to decide if your toddler has more than their fair share of worries for their age, it is really a matter of frequency and degree.
Toddlers can be scared of a many things – the dark, monsters, over-friendly dogs – but an anxious toddler, will have a more comprehensive list of fears and concerns that interferes with their ability to learn and thrive.
If you think this is the case with your child, remember, children are resilient and adaptable. Your child may be anxious now, but there are opportunities to teach them skills to manage their anxiety, that will support them throughout the rest of their lives.
Key points to remember
Don’t limit your child to situations and environments that they perceive as safe. It is important they learn to gradually face their fears, which may mean some level of discomfort initially.
Be calm and matter of fact about their fears so they can get them into proportion.
Explore the origin of their fear – your child may be too young to tell you exactly why they are afraid or what they are they are afraid of. Observe your child in play, watching television, or while looking at picture books with you, to see if themes emerge. You can also encourage them to draw pictures to express their fears or use emojis to identify their feelings.
When helping your child face their fears – it is important they feel supported by you and empowered. Don’t rush them, just gently encourage them to proceed at a pace they feel comfortable with.
Talk with your support system about how to help your child with their fears and agree on a united approach. Your aim is to have your child able to problem-solve and manage their emotions.
Common fears and tips on how to address them
Changes in routine and transitions – Small children often don’t like changes to their routine or having to finish an activity they enjoy and are fearful of what’s happening in its place. Let your child know you understand and empathise with their feelings, but don’t let that change your plans. Ease the transition by letting your child know in advance that is about to occur. Songs and rhymes can help relax your child. For example, make up a rhyme for bath-time and get your child to sing it along with you.
Cats and dogs – If you don’t have pets at home arrange for your child to meet a friend’s pet in a supervised, safe environment, where they can learn how to interact with animals safely and appropriately. Make sure when you’re in parks and playgrounds that your child knows to ask permission before interacting with someone’s pet and how to read an animal’s cues.
The dark – Have a party in the dark! Buy some glow sticks and glow jewellery for people to play with. Put on a shadow puppet play. Get an ultraviolet light and dance in white clothing!
Monsters – Go on a monster patrol before bedtime and show your child there are no monsters. Talk about the fact that monsters only exist in our imagination, and we can make them disappear when we want them to.
Separation anxiety – Often toddlers experience separation anxiety when being left at kindy or their early education centre. Have a brief goodbye ritual – don’t draw it out and don’t keep comforting your child. Make a quick exit, but don’t sneak out. If necessary, you can ring the early education staff to see how they’re doing, but don’t come back unless you’re advised to by staff. Every time you make an entrance your child’s separation anxiety is triggered again. If your child is clingy at home, encourage your child to play without you several times a day, both by themselves and with other people. The more they can develop fun, healthy relationships with other people, the better.
Doctors and dentists – Let your health professional know in advance of your child’s fears, so they can be prepared to make the visit as fun and unthreatening as possible.
Social anxiety – Not to be confused with separation anxiety, social anxiety can be triggered by any situation involving other people, regardless of whether you are there or not. Build your child’s confidence by having them socialise in small groups with people they are comfortable with for just a short time. Gradually build up the amount of time they spend socialising, and experiment with different contexts.
Common signs of discomfort
- Holding on to their comfort toy or object.
- Clinging on to you.
- Refusing to make eye contact.
- Refusing to speak.
- Using baby talk, when they have more sophisticated language.
- Peeing or pooing in their pants when they are already toilet trained.
- Acting aggressively – throwing objects or toys.
- Repeatedly asking for reassurance.
Extreme behaviours may be a sign that something more serious is going on and you should consult a health professional. These may include
- Hurting themselves – biting, scratching, or hitting.
- Biting their nails until they bleed.
- Pulling out their hair, eyebrows, or eyelashes.
- Weight loss.
- Failure to thrive.
- Rocking back and forth.
- Makes no eye contact.
- Refuses to speak to anyone outside immediate family members.
Many of these things that frighten or even traumatise toddlers seem inconsequential to adults. Our job is not to trivialise these fears or magic them away, but rather to help the child develop their own skills at managing them and getting on with having fun, learning and growing.
This is all easier said than done. Be kind and gentle with yourself as a parent - you’re doing the best you can and it can be heartbreaking seeing your child struggle with fears and anxiety.
For more on anxiety, other panui are available on Awhi Nga Matua. You might also find the resources below useful, which includes books from the IHC Library and helpful websites and helpline numbers. Or contact the IHC library direct to have a chat about what you need on 0800 442 442 or email: Librarian@ihc.org.nz.
Kids’ Books from the IHC Library
Aroha’s Way – A children’s guide through emotions– Craig Phillips (Maori language version is also available).
Please explain anxiety to me! Simple Biology and Solutions for Children and Parents – Lauri Zelinger and Jordan Zelinger, illustrated by Elisa Sabella
Hey Awesome – A book for kids about anxiety, courage and already being awesome – Karen Young, illustrated by Norvile Davidonyte
Hey Warrior – A book for kids about anxiety– Karen Young, illustrated by Norvile Davidonyte
The Kids’ Guide – Dealing with anxiety – Sarah Stevens and Scott Garrett
Books for Adults from the IHC Library
Worry-Proofing Your Anxious Child – Bev Aisbett
The No Worries Guide to Raising Your Anxious Child – A Handbook to Help You and Your Anxious Child Thrive – Karen Lynn Cassiday
Overcoming Anxiety in Children & Teens– Jed Baker
Healthy Mindsets for Little Kids – A resilience programme to help children aged 5-9 with anger, anxiety, attachment, body image, conflict discipline, empathy and self-esteem – Dr. Stephanie Azri, illustrated by Sid Azri
Helping Your Child with Worry and Anxiety– Ann Cox
How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler – Natasha Daniels
Starving the Anxiety Gremlin – A cognitive behavioural therapy workbook on anxiety management for children aged 5-9
Anxiety New Zealand: 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)
1737: Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor
Depression.org.nz: 0800 111 757 or text 4202
Kidsline (for people up to 18 years): 0800 543 754
Whats Up (for 5 to 18-year-olds): 0800 942 8787
thelowdown.co.nz , Web chat, email chat or free text 5626
Youthline: 0800 376 633, free text 234, email email@example.com
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)