Toddlerhood is a special and exciting time when a vast amount of physical, emotional, and cognitive growth occurs. With all the changes happening in their little bodies and minds, toddlers are often sensitive to the world around them and are prone to feeling stress. Stressors can be as universal as the normal developmental stage of separation anxiety, or as unintentional as exposure to the evening news. Here are some of the reasons your toddler may be feeling stressed, some common signs to look out for, and the ways to lessen or alleviate her anxiety.
Signs of toddler stress vary with each individual. "Every child is unique and will display her own personal signs of stress," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution, "so parents need to be on the lookout for unusual or suspect behaviors and actions." Rene Hackney, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and founder of Parenting Playgroups and Parenting by Dr. Rene, agrees. The toddler years span varying levels of language development, she explains, so a meaningful Q&A about her stress may be unrealistic, but simply listening to comments and words or watching behaviors can offer significant clues about the presence of stress. "Changes in normal behavior are significant indicators," Pantley advises. The following signs may suggest that your toddler is feeling stressed:
- Change in regular sleep and eating habits
- Change in emotions (showing signs of being sad, clingy, withdrawn, or angry)
- Increase in crying or tantrums
- Nightmares and fears at bedtime
- Physical ailments, such as headaches or stomachaches
- Anxious tics, coughs, or body movements
- Frequent reliance on habits such as hair chewing or thumb-sucking
- Change in bowel movements
Although "these symptoms don't always indicate stress, they could be related to misbehavior, habits or growth. If a child's behavior worsens, it could be a sign of something more," Pantley says. If there's any concern that a child's behavior is becoming more extreme, seek advice from a professional.Reasons for Toddler Stress
For young toddlers, the growing awareness that their primary caregivers are their main protection against threat creates an instinct to keep them close by, Pantley says. Whether they are learning how to walk or are starting preschool with longer periods of separation, toddlers may feel anxious. "Though separation anxiety is often a healthy response to being separated, it can also be a reaction to an unrelated stressor, such as a new day care," Dr. Hackney explains. "When there's a life stressor, kids' tolerance for other frustrations tends to go down." This can lead to increased clinginess, difficulties with goodbyes, or nervousness about being away from primary caregivers.
New Family Dynamic or Big Family Changes
Major family changes such as death, divorce, a parent's job loss, or a new home can stress toddlers. "The combination of heightened emotions, disrupted schedules, and unfamiliar routines can make even the most relaxed child feel some tension," Pantley says. Even positive changes, like the birth of a sibling, can be stressful simply because the toddler must adjust to a different way of life in the household. "Change equals stress," Dr. Hackney explains. If there is a significant impact on the way life has normally been, stress can result.
"When potty training goes well, it tends to just be a transition, a milestone," Dr. Hackney says. But "it becomes a stressor when parents push it on a child before he's ready, when a child is screaming that he don't want to go, and when parents are upset with him over it." If learning to use the potty is beginning to feel like a discipline issue, reevaluate your toddler's readiness. He may be trying to tell you that now is not the most effective time to learn this new skill, even if you are hoping it is. The longer the struggle, the bigger the stress becomes. Instead of worrying, consult your pediatrician, find expert info online, or read books on the subject.
Children live in the present and enjoy taking the time to experience the world around them, so overscheduling them for different activities or rushing from place to place can create stress. If a parent's agenda or busy to-do list disregards a child's rhythm, stress will occur.
Unexpected World Events
Big scary events (natural disasters, school shootings, and terrorist attacks) or exposure to violence on the evening news can affect toddlers. Even accidental exposure to a scary movie or commercials on television can influence your child. "It's common for children to pick up on the stress around them," Pantley explains. Pay attention to any frightening or violent images surrounding a child's environment on a daily basis.