If your toddler seems more anxious or nervous than usual, learn the reasons behind the stress and the solutions for soothing it away.

toddler looking upset/worried
Credit: Fancy Photography/Veer

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 Your Toddler Is Stressed

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  • Change in emotions (showing signs of being sad, clingy, withdrawn, or angry)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

Separation Anxiety

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.

Overwhelming Schedules

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.

Solutions to Toddler Stress

Keep Calm and Carry On

"It's important to stay calm and acknowledge your child's feelings," Pantley says. "But don't go overboard. You want to convey that you understand your child's feelings, but that nothing bad will happen when you are apart. Your child can learn that he doesn't have to be immobilized by stress or fear." Dr. Hackney suggests a tactic she describes as "matter-of-fact empathy," where the message is conveyed through words, body language, and tone of voice that you understand how your child feels but you're not changing course. If a child doesn't want to go to day care, say, 'I know, this is really hard. I know you really don't want to go, you're having fun at home,' but continue your usual routine and then head out the door as planned. This way, "all of your language is basically saying 'I completely understand, but we're still going,'" Dr. Hackney says.

Stick to the Schedule

Maintain daily routines such as going to day care or preschool, feeding, and preparing for bedtime. Routines allow toddlers to feel in control over what to expect, and "go a long way in creating a sense of calm," Dr. Hackney says. Keeping a consistent bedtime is particularly important because children can become stressed more easily if they are overtired. "To help your child cope with the stressors of life, make certain that she is getting a good night's sleep, adequate naptime, healthy meals, and plenty of daily activity," Pantley says. It's best to postpone other changes -- such as potty training or transitioning to a big-kid bed -- that can disrupt the normal schedule. Wait until life has settled into a comfortable pattern, Pantley advises.

Allot Time for Breaks

Build in adequate time for rest breaks, naps, and preparation for activities. "Children live according to a much slower clock than adults do," Pantley explains. "They don't give a thought to what they might be doing next. They pause as they watch the cat sleep, examine the color patterns in the carpet, and ponder the reasons for having toes. So examine your schedule to make sure you're focusing on priorities and taking time to enjoy your child's company. Make sure that you're not taking away any special moments by rushing to the next item on the schedule.

Plan Ahead and Allow for Processing

"How parents present a stressor, how they frame and discuss it, and how they answer questions gives children boundaries on how to perceive it," Dr. Hackney explains. "The idea is to start honest and small. If you need to tell your child about someone passing away, try saying, 'We wanted to let you know that Grandma was very sick and she died." If he has questions, you can then decide how to describe it (giving a toned-down version or rephrasing it based on your beliefs and comfort level.) If you're trying to explain a new sibling, read storybooks about the new baby's arrival a few weeks in advance. Make the initial introduction very focused on the toddler as a new big brother or sister, and keep his normal routine to make the transition smoother, Dr. Hackney says. Convey the message that his thoughts and feelings matter, but don't give too much information that can't be processed.

Monitor TV Exposure

Be mindful about what programs your child is absorbing. "When a parent is watching the news and a child is in the room, there's exposure to all kinds of violence," Hackney says. Reserve certain TV shows for after the kids are in bed or limit how long you watch the evening news. Exposure can often be unintentional, so try scheduling different TV times for different-aged kids or make sure all the programming is geared toward a younger child if she's in a room with others. Visit websites like kids-in-mind.com or commonsensemedia.org to see the reviews and ratings of various programs so you can make informed decisions about TV viewing.

Give Extra Hugs and Kisses

When adjusting to change, some extra one-on-one attention and a few more daily cuddles and kisses can provide just what a toddler needs to feel comfortable and to get settled into new patterns, Pantley says. Whether the stressor is a negative or positive one, the added affection can help boost the child's confidence and self-regulation skills, enabling her to be more flexible and resilient to change.

Copyright © 2014 Meredith Corporation.