Help Your Toddler Handle Stress

Your child is facing new challenges and frustrations, but you can help keep her calm.
worried boy

To you, it may seem like your toddler has it made. She has her own personal chef (you!). Someone reads her a story and tucks her in every night. She doesn't have any chores. She even has an on-call doc (you again!) to patch up her boo-boos. Still, life isn't all rainbows and sunshine for your little one.

Along with all the advancements that happen at this age -- greater mobility, rapidly expanding speech skills -- are a series of new demands and expectations that can be unnerving for your child. "However, a toddler's tension often results from everyday frustrations, like when she wants a toy that's out of reach or she's denied a favorite treat," says Charlotte Reznick, Ph. D., author of The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety Into Joy and Success.

Recognizing the symptoms of stress can be challenging for parents of toddlers, who may lack the words to express how they are feeling. A few sure signs: increased crying or clinginess and shifts in eating or sleeping habits. What should you do if you kid seems uptight? We asked experts for smart ways to help your child cope with these common anxiety triggers.

Mom and Dad's Moods

Remember that heated money talk you had with your husband last week, or the time you moped around for hours worrying about a mistake you made at work? Your child does. "Toddlers may not understand all of your words, but they can read body language and sense the tension in your voice," says Robert Epstein, Ph.D., author of The Big Book of Stress Relief Games. Moreover, your stress can be contagious: Your kid may start to imitate your response to it and experience similar feelings to yours.

Give relief Break the links of this chain reaction by getting your own emotions in check. "Do whatever constructive things you can to relieve your anxiety, whether that means trying meditation, dancing, or whatever," Dr. Reznick says. Talking to a good friend may also help. "The best way to decrease your child's stress level is to improve the way you manage your own," says Dr. Epstein.

Separation

You shouldn't feel guilty about leaving your child, whether it's to run errands, exercise, or enjoy an evening out. Still, the experience can be upsetting for him, since at this stage he may fear that your departure is permanent, says Kimberley Clayton Blaine, a child therapist and author of The Go-To Mom's Parents' Guide to Emotion Coaching Your Young Children. This anxiety tends to peak between 12 and 22 months before slowly receding.

Give relief To ease the bye-bye blues, try to leave your child with familiar faces, such as Grandma or a regular sitter, whenever possible. If you're using a new caregiver, give your toddler 30 minutes to get to know her while you're still around. Day-care dropoffs may also become more difficult at this stage, so keep your goodbye brief -- but avoid sneaking off. "It's important to tell him where you're going and when you'll return, which may make him feel secure," says Blaine. You can also give your toddler a photo of you or an item of your clothing (preferably something you've worn so it has your smell) to help comfort him. Eventually he'll realize that your absence is temporary.

Scary Stories

Toddlers are really too young to watch movies, but they can still be spooked by images they see inadvertently (such as when an older sibling is watching the harrowing undersea encounters of Nemo, the little clown fish). Even some children's stories that you might not consider to be frightening at all (like "The Three Little Pigs") might terrify a young kid. "Your child can't always distinguish between what's make-believe and what's real," says Dr. Reznick.

Give relief Be careful about what you expose your child to. If she sees something unexpectedly that upsets her, comfort her and talk through her fear ("Yes, that shark was scary, but he's not real and can't hurt you"). Then work through her feelings as you play together. For example, try huffing and puffing at your house so that she sees it's impossible to blow it down, or read Hooray for Fish! by Lucy Cousins to give her a friendlier view of ocean creatures.

A Family Crisis

If you're dealing with divorce or the loss of a loved one, keep in mind that your toddler is likely to be feeling the effects too. "Even if little kids don't fully understand what's happening, they can pick up on your stress," Dr. Epstein says. By age 2 your child may realize that Daddy doesn't live here anymore or notice your red-rimmed eyes when Grandpa passes away. If people around him are sad, he'll most likely share that emotion.

Give relief When a traumatic event occurs, do your best to preserve your child's routines as much as possible. Maintain your bedtime rituals and continue familiar activities that promote a sense of normalcy. It's fine to let your toddler know that "Mommy feels a little sad right now," but avoid displaying too much of your anxiety, fear, or sorrow in front of him. Your child needs to know that you'll make sure things are fine and that he can always depend on you. "Holding him, providing lots of hugs and kisses, and using a positive, reassuring tone will help him cope," says Dr. Reznick.

Using the Potty

For her whole life, your kid has been peeing and pooping without giving it a second thought. Suddenly, she may be expected to hold it in until she's seated on the big, scary chair with the hole in the middle. No wonder the potty freaks out many toddlers. Some parents make it worse by expecting their child to train completely within a few days or overreacting if their child has an accident.

Give relief If your toddler seems frustrated with potty training, lay off for a while until she seems ready to try again. "You can get her used to the idea by showing her underwear and talking about how to use the toilet like a big girl does, but you have to make it sound fun," advises Blaine. That way, your child will approach the task as though it's an exciting adventure rather than something she's being pressured to do.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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