10 Signs of an Anxious Toddler

What are the signs of an anxious toddler?

 

Many parents and even mental health professionals will miss the early signs of toddler anxiety, as it can often look vastly different than what we might expect.

 

Common anxiety symptoms often do not show up until a child is school aged. But -why wait? What if you could detect those early signs and get your child help when they are very young? 

Early warning signs of anxiety can be seen in toddlers - if you know what to look for. A child therapist who specializes in infant and toddler mental health with give you 10 signs to look for in your child.

There are the obvious signs of toddler anxiety such as excessive fears and phobias, but there are also more subtle signs that indicate an anxious and sensitive temperament.

 

Some early precursors to anxiety are not fear related issues, but rather behavioral and sensory processing issues. Children with sensory processing issues (SPD) are much more prone to having issues with anxiety as well. Many children will have sensory issues as toddlers and will be diagnosed with anxiety when they are school aged.  

 

Early intervention is key for both issues – therefore it is important to get an evaluation from a mental health professional who specializes in toddler mental health along with a Pediatric Occupational Therapist if you have any concerns.

 

Below are 10 common signs of an anxious toddler:

 

 

1) Fears and Phobias

First, let’s address the most obvious sign of toddler anxiety – fears and phobias. Toddlers with an anxious personality tend to be more fearful than the average toddler.

 

Typical toddlers can also exhibit some of these fears, but it is the level of fear that sometimes differentiates the anxious toddler from the non-anxious toddler. The most common toddler fears are centered around a few basic themes:

 

Bugs, birds and animals
Shadows and the dark
Monsters, creatures and dinosaurs
Bathroom fears (Fear of getting flushed down the toilet, of bugs or of the flush)
Bathtub fears (Fear of getting swallowed by the drain, bugs in bath or of water)

 

This is not an exhaustive list, but highlights the most common toddler fears you might encounter with your little one.

 

2) Rigidity in Routine

All toddlers love routine and structure, but anxious toddlers cannot survive without it! Anxious toddlers need to have their day planned out in a very predictable fashion.

 

If plans suddenly change, these children become completely unglued. Anxious children cannot handle change or transitions and they will often become unraveled when simple changes are made to their daily routine.

 

3) Sensitivity to Noises

Anxious toddlers are more likely to have heightened sensitivities. They are often more startled by noises in their environment. They might be afraid of loud sounds such as the vacuum, garbage disposal, garbage truck, automatic toilet flushers and loud music.

 

4) Sensitivity to Clothes

Besides noises, anxious children might start to have issues with their clothes. Often anxious toddlers have trouble with seams on their socks and tags on their clothes. Some children prefer to wear crocs or flip flops. Some anxious toddlers refuse to wear jeans or clothes that feel restricting on their body.

 

5) Doesn’t like to get Hands Dirty

Some anxious toddlers are very concerned with getting dirty – especially their hands. Anxious toddlers often avoid messy play and they may have a mini-meltdown if their hands get overly dirty. They will often insist on washing their hands when their hands have anything on them.

 

6) Has Many Rituals

Anxious toddlers have many routines, that border on ritualistic behavior. They may only want to use certain dishes or they may insist that you serve food to them in a certain way (cut it in triangles).

 

They might have bedtime routines that require you to line up their stuffed animals in a certain way or require you to say good night to them in a certain way. They might have you re-do things because it wasn’t done in the correct order or in the correct way.

 

7) Picky Eater

Most toddlers are picky eaters. Food is a common toddler battle. The anxious toddler takes picky eating to another level!

 

Anxious children are less likely to try any new foods at all. They may not want their food touching on their plate. Some anxious toddlers gag when their food has textures they are not expecting. Anxious toddlers might have less than a handful of foods that they will eat.

 

8) Toddler Follows you From Room to Room

The anxious toddler is a parent’s shadow. Many toddlers will follow their parent around the house, but the anxious toddler will have a complete meltdown if they cannot see their parent. These children are right under their parent’s feet and cry and hover around the door when their parent’s in the bathroom. Any type of separation is a cause for panic for the anxious toddler.

 

9) Slow to Warm

Anxious toddlers are less likely to be friendly to strangers. They are more likely to be leg huggers and may take some time to warm up to new people in their life. Some anxious toddlers might be overwhelmed in crowds or at busy birthday parties where there are many children around.

 

10) Sleep Issues

Anxious toddlers almost always have sleep issues. They have a hard time sleeping on their own and want their parent to lie down with them or sleep with them at night. They might get up several times a night because they are scared or had a bad dream.

 

Some anxious toddlers might have all ten of these qualities and others might only have a few. Every child is unique and anxiety can manifest in different ways for different children. 

 

The good news is the earlier you detect anxiety in your child, the quicker you can learn approaches to help build their level of resiliency and teach them coping mechanisms to overcome these challenges.

 

If you are concerned about your toddler’s behavior, consult a child therapist who specializes in infant and toddler mental health along with a pediatric occupational therapist for an evaluation.

 

Anxious children often tend to be some of the most kind-hearted children I have ever met! Having a sensitive temperament brings many great strengths. It is important to arm our young children with tools to overcome their anxiety, so their full potential can achieved.

 

Do you have anxious kids? Natasha Daniels is the author of How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler.

 

She also offers a thorough video course on How to Parent Your Anxious Kids – for all ages.

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These are the best parenting lessons I have seen! Great quick videos on how to parent an anxious child.

For more great articles follow Anxious Toddlers Pinterest board: Follow Anxious Toddlers’s board TODDLER – Anxious toddlers on Pinterest.

If your toddler has some of these anxious qualities check out some of my other articles:

Bathtime struggles

Sleep issues

How to teach your child how to fight their fears

Why toddlers are picky eaters

5 supplements that can help childhood anxiety

20 responses to “10 Signs of an Anxious Toddler”

  1. Great blog. Parents see these behaviors and don’t necessarily realize they are witnessing the manifestation of anxiety.

  2. Amanda says:

    This is a great list. I think it is describing a Type 2 Sensitive Child from Carol Tuttle’s “Child Whisperer” book. Their sensitivity is actually a gift, and can be wonderful when nurtured and channeled correctly. 🙂

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      I agree Amanda – sensitivity can be a wonderful gift if channeled correctly. I have three amazing, sensitive children and I wouldn’t change it for the world!

  3. […] you are not sure your child is anxious – read 10 Signs of an Anxious Child to get an idea of what anxiety looks like in […]

  4. Kirstin says:

    Any suggestions for anxious teenagers??? Many of these same things listed only 15…help!!!

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      Many of the symptoms of anxiety are the same regardless of the age. A great book for teen anxiety is The Anxiety Workbook for Teens by Lisa M. Schab. You can get this on Amazon. Hope that helps!

  5. […] you are not sure your child is anxious – you can read my article 10 Signs of an Anxious Toddler to get an idea of what anxiety looks like in children or consult a mental health professional for […]

  6. […] you are not sure your child is anxious – you can read my article 10 Signs of an Anxious Toddler to get an idea of what anxiety looks like in children or consult a mental health professional for […]

  7. Andrea MacCabe says:

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank You!!! I have been picking up signs from my 5 year old son for a bit now but teachers at school say they haven’t noticed anything, so I put it on me. Just last week the teacher’s assistant told me at pick up that he was worried he would miss me picking him up so he would not complete his letters because he was so flustered. I knew right then it was not all in my head. To me his anxiety got the best of him and now interfered with his school work. I have been worried in my head, knew I needed to get some advise on how to help move him through moments just not sure where to begin. I felt lost and am crying now because I feel that I am not alone, that someone understands and can point me in the right direction to help and not overwhelm him.
    Thank you for putting this “out there.” I feel like the hand of God just pointed me to you. I can not tell you how thankful I am. I just ordered your book and plan on talking to his doctor to get Me an appointment on how to help him.

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      Andrea – it is comments like this that inspire me to continue writing. I am so glad to hear that it validated your concerns and gave you the support you needed. I wish you and your son the best! You are definitely NOT alone.

  8. Rachel says:

    Most of these sound like attributes of sensory processing disorder (SPD), which of course creates anxiety for a child. This is often addressed by occupational therapists.

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      I agree Rachel – there is a huge overlap between SPD and anxiety. Toddlers who are going to have ongoing anxiety issues – will show sensory processing issues first. There is a huge correlation between SPD and anxiety. Not only can SPD be anxiety-producing, it can also be a comorbid condition with anxiety disorders. so unfortunately those with anxiety disorders, also are more likely to have SPD. I agree, an Occupational Therapist is key in this early stage – to address those SPD issues. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  9. Ashley says:

    Please be aware that several of these “signs” listed could and more than likely are a result from sensory processing issues. Yes, anxiety can be a result from sensory processing, but please do your research and most importantly seek the advice from a pediatrician or neurologist, both of which are qualified to diagnose such. As a pediatric Occupational Therapist I can not stress enough the importance of early intervention in these cases.

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      I agree Ashley – these are definitely signs of sensory issues as well. Unfortunately there is a HUGE overlap between sensory processing disorder and anxiety. Not only is SPD anxiety-producing, it is often a comorbid condition with anxiety. Often toddlers will show the sensory signs before they ever show the anxiety disorder symptoms that come as children get older.

      I completely agree that parents should seek out a full assessment from professionals including their Doctor, along with occupational therapists and infant and toddler mental health professionals. We all need to work together – as issues overlap.

  10. Savannah says:

    Thank you for such an awesome list, Natasha!
    While many of these signs may be difficult to deal with, it truly is wonderful to understand, as a parent, what your child is going through and how to best help them. As someone who deals with sensitivities and anxiety myself, I truly think developing a routine is key for parents of children with anxiety. Thank you so much for sharing

  11. Marina says:

    Most of your list also sounds like characteristics of autism. I say this because my now 5 yo was tested by our school district at age 4 and this is the conclusion they came up with (highly functioning autism). At the time I wasn’t so sure but we needed the OT and speech services, so we went with it. I have always said to my husband and to his preschool teachers that I thought it was anxiety, not autism. He is a very loving and social kid. (Especially if my husband or I are present). He has always had problems separating from us and has more fears than other kids his age. Slow to warm. Not a risk taker. No obscure interests but he is very passionate about his interests (mainly sports and music). Now, thanks to a great speech teacher, he is being evaluated for anxiety. The speech teacher saw a huge difference in him between her speech session (in which his father is present) and an in class observation at his preschool (in which he is anxious because we drop off). She couldn’t believe it was the same kid! Anyways, I wonder if this has happened to others before where anxiety was mistaken for autism.

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      Hi Marina, Thank you so much for sharing your story with us! You bring up a great point.

      Unfortunately anxious young children can look autistic. With that being said – autistic children can be anxious. It can be so hard to differentiate – especially since some of the early signs of anxiety in young children have more to do with sensory issues and rigidity with routine – than with fears.

      That is why it is so important to have multiple professionals assess your child – within their specialty. I also think it is helpful for children to be seen multiple times when being assessed – as anxious children act differently the first time you meet them (as your story illustrates).

      I wish you the best with your little one!

  12. Dawn says:

    I wish I had the resource of the web when my kids were younger. My son, who is now 19, was diagnosed with anxiety, but because no one recognized the symptoms to be anxiety, the diagnosis didn’t come until he was 14. I knew something was not ‘right’, He struggled with school right from kindergarten and in the 6th grade he failed every class. The school said he was just lazy and refused to do any testing and because it was thought to be a learning disability no one initially would do any testing, saying it had to go through the school. I finally found a doctor that would do the testing and she had made the diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. Once we knew what was holding him back and he got the proper help and encouragement he flourished. His last 2 years of schooling was at a vocational school and they did everything they could to help him. He graduated on the honor roll and was given an award by his teacher for most improved student and is currently going trough basic training for the US Army. I am so proud of his accomplishments but wish I had found out and given him help earlier. After reading your article, I see signs in my 3 yr old granddaughter. I will definitely be keeping an eye out with her.

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      I am sorry to hear about your son’s initial struggle Dawn. I am so glad to hear they were able to eventually figure out he had anxiety. Your granddaughter is lucky to have you!

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