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Why it happens
Many parents are taken aback when their easygoing, adventurous baby turns into a clingy, insecure toddler. After all, who would've thought that a child so young could be so anxious?
Your toddler may wail pitifully if you leave the room for just a minute, shrink from strangers, or practically jump out of his skin at the sound of fireworks and other loud noises. As disconcerting as these reactions may be for you, they're all signs that your child's development is right on track. Some anxiety and fearfulness is a normal – and expected – part of a toddler's cognitive and emotional development.
Look at it from his point of view: It's a big, scary world out there, and every step your toddler takes toward independence comes with an equal measure of fear about what he's stepping into. As your child explores the world around him, he also discovers that things can go wrong: The family cat scratches. Playmates snatch toys. And parents sometimes disappear for hours at a time.
As his thought processes become more complex, he's also able to conjure up a multitude of scary scenarios involving everyday objects (sinister vacuum cleaners and bathtub drains, for instance) as well as imaginary threats (the monster under the bed). What's more, as your child becomes better attuned to his surroundings, he begins to react to stresses he was barely aware of a few months ago.
Just as an adult's emotional issues are rarely confined to one area, children become anxious for many different reasons. Your toddler may have stranger anxiety, which is triggered now that he can tell the difference between familiar faces and strangers. Separation anxiety, which typically begins to manifest at about 10 months, is also both normal and common in toddlerhood.
Your toddler may also have developed fear of something in particular, such as insects or water. If your formerly fearless child is suddenly terrified of the neighbor's dog, the fear may have arisen from an actual incident – your toddler may have been knocked down by a rambunctious pup (an image that may linger in his increasingly complex brain for weeks). Toddlers also have a hard time sorting out fantasy from reality, so this fear may have sprung out of his own imagination or been triggered by a bedtime reading of The Three Little Pigs with its Big Bad Wolf.
Keep in mind that your toddler is experiencing many things for the first time. The world is a big, complicated place so it's normal to have a little apprehension (or even a lot!). His anxieties will almost certainly fade as he matures, gets more comfortable with the world around him, and begins to gain more control over his feelings.
What to do
If something gives your child the willies, do what your instincts tell you to – cuddle and reassure her. Stay close to help her feel safe. But don't stop there. Be creative about helping your toddler tackle her fears. These tips can help:
Acknowledge the fear. Some of your toddler's anxieties – fear of losing you, for example – are utterly normal, and denying them would be unrealistic. Before you dash to the bathroom, for instance, say to her, "I know it scares you when you can't see me, but I'll always make sure you're in a safe place."
Talk it out. Toddlers have active imaginations and limited vocabularies, so it's no wonder they have trouble articulating what they're feeling. Help your child express her emotions by talking about them. Be simple and direct. A long, complicated conversation may make her fears more confusing. Instead, you can just ask: "Do you feel worried or scared?"
If she's all worked up about an imaginary friend in the closet, do some prodding to find out what, exactly, is frightening her so much: Does the monster have big feet, lots of teeth, or make a terrible sound? Once she's found the words to describe her fears, reassurances from you will help quell them.
Talk about other emotions as well: "You seem really excited about going to the zoo. Is that one of your favorite places?" And make sure you give your child equal amounts of attention when she's feeling cheerful and confident, so that you're not unwittingly encouraging her to act fearful.
Prepare her. If your toddler gets timid when she encounters new people or enters new places, help dispel her fears ahead of time. When you're heading out to a birthday party or playgroup, for instance, name the people she'll know there and mention the new ones she might meet.
Take it slow. Transitions can be difficult for anyone, but especially for young children. Rather than thrusting your toddler into a strange environment or letting an unfamiliar person get right in her face, try the slow approach.
If she freezes up when you plop her down in the sandbox, for instance, climb in with her and let her sift and scoop from the safety of your lap. Once she's comfortable, you can spend a few minutes playing next to her, then move to the edge of the sandbox (talking breezily all the while). Finally, settle yourself on a bench a few feet away.
Practice separation. Use a little role-playing to teach your toddler how to handle your absences. When she's rested and in a playful mood, set a kitchen timer for one minute and exit the room. Ask her to keep watch on the clock, and reappear as soon as the bell rings. (If watching you leave is too hard, have her exit while you stay behind.)
As her confidence grows, slowly lengthen the time you're apart. This exercise helps your toddler understand sequence, so the next time you're separated she'll grasp the order of events: You leave, time passes, and you come back. Knowing what to expect will make this time apart easier for her to bear.
Say good-bye. If typical departures are marked by your toddler howling with anguish, it may be tempting to sneak out when she's preoccupied. Don't do it, though. This may only make her cling harder because she never knows when you'll disappear without notice.
Instead, give her some time to get settled, then quickly and cheerfully say good-bye. (Extended, tortured good-byes – "Mommy will miss you so much!" – just make partings harder.) Don't forget to give your child a time frame too. Tell her, "Mommy has to go now, but I'll be back after you eat lunch and have your nap."
Give her a "lovey." A favorite blankie, stuffed animal, or other soft toy has comforted many a child through daytime separations and nighttime fears. If your toddler grows fond of a particular object, encourage this attachment – the big, bad world will seem a little less scary whenever she has it in her arms.
Ease bedtime fears. If your toddler worries that monsters are hiding under the bed, reassure her that you'll keep her safe. Make her room as cozy and comfortable as possible. Get a cheerful nightlight to illuminate corners where shadows lurk. Post a funny sign on the closet door and tell her that it says, "No monsters allowed!" And try not to expose your toddler to scary TV shows, movies, or books because these will only make bedtime fears worse.
Next, establish a bedtime routine and stick to it, leaving plenty of time for a bath, a story, and some quiet cuddling before lights-out. To help your toddler go to sleep feeling calm, try to keep evenings as peaceful as possible. (That is not the time to hash out a contentious issue with your partner, for instance.)
Help her battle her demons. When your toddler has a nightmare, assure her that it wasn't real, no matter how vivid it seemed. Hold her and rub her back, and stay with her until she's calm enough to sleep.
If she's old enough to articulate what happens in her nightmares, discuss it during the day (when it won't seem so frightening). Ask, "What do you think you can do in scary dreams to help yourself?" If a scary person is chasing her, for instance, suggest that she have the police chase the person away. If your child believes that the bad guy can fly, walk through walls, or otherwise defy her ability to protect herself, tap into a little "magical thinking." At bedtime, wave a magic wand to ward off villains and protect her from harm.
Comfort with tall tales. Telling a story can be a great way to explain away scary things. When your toddler trembles during storms, for example, spin a wild yarn about a benign magical being who makes lightning bolts and claps of thunder.
Stroke her ego. Applaud your toddler's accomplishments, however small. Boost her self-confidence by cheering when she ventures into the bathtub, for instance, and next time she may even feel brave enough to join you in the swimming pool.
Don't tease. Being teased or taunted for her fears will not make them go away. It's actually likely to intensify them.
Don't demand toughness. Some parents push their kids to be independent before they're ready, but that strategy is almost sure to backfire. If you pressure your terrified toddler to go down the slide at the playground, for instance, not only will she feel bad about herself, she'll fear you as well as the slide. Let her develop autonomy naturally – and at her own pace.
Accept your child's nature. Every child has a temperament – or inborn personality – and some are just naturally anxious. Don't expect your little one to be like her fearless older sibling or any other child you know. Your child may always be sensitive about certain things, and that's okay. Your role is to accept her and help her find ways to cope with her fears.
Be patient. If your toddler is feeling scared or anxious, show her that you're there to help her through it, even if it means you have to drop everything you're doing. Taking time out from your busy schedule to comfort your toddler until she feels better will go a long way toward helping her feel safe. That feeling of security can help your child face her fears and anxieties more confidently.
Set a good example. Your child takes her cues from you – if you jump when things go bump in the night, hover while she plays, or declare "You're safe now – Mommy's here," every time she faces a challenge, you'll just reinforce the idea that there's something to be scared of, and that you're the only one who can protect her. If you approach new situations confidently and calmly, on the other hand, she'll eventually learn to do the same.
Because toddlers feel things so intensely, even normal anxiety may strike you as being extreme. Generally speaking, though, a toddler's fears are cause for concern only if they immobilize her, disrupt her sleep patterns, cause physical symptoms such as stomachaches, or dampen her enjoyment of family and friends. If your child is still anxious and fearful despite your efforts, consult her doctor or a mental health practitioner who specializes in working with young children.