Toddlers: Encourage Exploration
Once your child is walking, he'll want to explore and push his limits -- and that alone invites a certain amount of stress. "Toddlers are trying to master challenges like reaching the sink or manipulating a tricky toy without help," says Dr. Chansky. "Even these everyday strains can stress a child out if they add up. And if you get frustrated with your child for not being able to do something, it only intensifies that anxiety." This is also prime time for tantrums -- and the way you react to meltdowns can teach him a lot about handling pressure. If you tense, he'll feel anxious too. A child who is overwhelmed at this age may hit, pinch, or throw toys when he plays. In addition, he can have trouble settling down at bedtime.
To ease the angst, empathize with your child and be patient. "You might say, 'I know stacking those blocks is tough -- it was hard for your brother too,' " says Dr. Chansky. Once he knows you understand how he feels, he'll be more likely to calm down, and you can talk about how best to tackle building together.
Dr. Gunnar has found that children who are frightened by something out of the ordinary, such as a clown, become even more anxious when parents push them to confront their fears ("Don't be so scared -- it's just a clown"). It's better to get down to his level and explain in a calm voice who the clown is and why he's there. In Dr. Gunnar's research, children whose parents tried this were more likely to muster the courage to approach whatever they found upsetting.
If your child attends daycare, just the long hours of commotion may be tough to handle. Between 70 and 80 percent of toddlers in daycare show increasing levels of stress hormones as the day wears on, partly because toddlers have few social skills and find interacting with others to be hard work. If your child seems clingy and fussy, spend time observing the daycare setting. "There should be a warm feeling of community," says Dr. Gunnar. How big is the group? Do the kids receive a lot of attention from the provider? Are the shyer kids getting support? Are there enough breaks for quiet time between activities? If you're satisfied with your childcare setting, take a look at your mornings. Are they a chaotic rush? Try getting up 15 minutes earlier and playing with your toddler for a bit before you leave. When you pick him up, make sure you spend some quality time just focused on him -- turn off your phone, put the mail aside, and open a book to read together, or get out some paper and crayons so you both can unwind from the day.