How to Spot Signs of Stress and Anxiety in Your Toddler

3 common signs of stress in young children and how you can help

toddler hanging on to mother's dress
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Children of all ages experience stress and anxiety, but they will respond to it differently depending on their age, personality, and even their personal coping mechanisms. It can be difficult for parents, especially for parents of toddlers, to recognize signs of stress or anxiety in their children. It can be even more difficult to know what to do.

The Question: Is My Toddler Stressed?

We recently received a question from a reader about this very topic.

Here's what she wrote:

We recently moved to a new town far from close relatives. Since then, my little one has not been sleeping well and gets upset if I leave his sight for more than a minute. I keep thinking that, even if he's upset from the move, he'll get used to our new life and stop worrying. It's been a couple of months, though, and he still seems stressed out. Is it stress? How can I help him get over it?

The Answer: Even Small Changes Can Cause Stress

It sounds like your little guy is anxious and feeling stressed. It's possible that the stress is not just caused by the big move, but other new experiences that arise as the result of the move. Even small, seemingly unimportant changes can make it hard for a toddler to feel at ease. For instance, maybe the library is bigger than your old one, the place where you go for pizza might smell different than his old favorite joint, or he may be scared of the dog that barks every day from the house around the block.

It can take more than a few months for all of these strange things to feel comfortable to your toddler.

Spotting Signs of Stress in Toddlers (And How to Help)

Just as our reader suspected when she saw changes in sleep patterns and attachment in her toddler, young children generally lack the ability to explain their feelings, which instead may manifest in behavioral changes.

To help your little guy deal with his confused emotions, try these tips related to some of the most common ways stress manifests in children:

1. For the child who (literally) can't let go:
Extreme "clinginess" or attachment is instinctual for anxious toddlers. This may be especially common not just during times of major changes in your family, but it can also happen as you try to help your tot through a milestone transition such as giving up the bottle.

How to help: Your little one will likely want to hang on to something -- anything -- when everything else around him seems to be changing. While he probably prefers to cling to you, it may help to offer another object for him to take everywhere. Try to find a special lovey or comfort object that will offer your little one some consistent security.

If possible, try to ease your child through the change or transition -- so if he's starting at a new daycare, begin by just having him stay for an hour the first day, two hours the next day, and significantly longer the third day as you acclimate him to the new surroundings. Be prepared, though: Your little one might become very attached to a lovey.

2. For kids who are having trouble sleeping:
Little kids who can't explain to you that they are feeling upset and worried may start to display behavior that tip you off that something is wrong.

Among those changes may be sleep problems.

How to help: Stressed children may begin having night terrors or start sleep walking. You shouldn't wake a child during one of these episodes. Instead, make sure he's safe. You don't need to bring the child into your bed or sleep next to him (that can start other bad habits). You can sit with him, though, and gently try to soothe him until he relaxes again. Be warned, learning to relax can take a while.

3. For the child who is having problems with behavior:
Regression is another classic sign of childhood stress. A toddler who had been successfully toilet trained may begin having frequent accidents or a 3-year-old may start asking for a bottle and start acting like a "baby."

How to help: Major changes, especially a sense of loss or the birth of a new sibling, may spur this type of anxiety and reaction in a toddler. In short, the pressure to act like a "big" kid can overwhelm your little guy and make him feel like falling back to an earlier stage of development when things were easier and safer.

It can be frustrating for a parent, but don’t criticize your child for acting babyish -- that may just increase the feelings of stress. Instead, make him eager to do big boy things. He might be in charge of singing to his newborn sister or helping pack his own lunch for nursery school.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to toddlers experiencing stress from big changes, in most instances time will help your child get used to the new situation. Meanwhile, consistency and lots of patience and love will go a long way to helping your child overcome the stress and anxiety.