Ask the Child Therapist Episode 13:

Do’s and Don’t to Help Your Anxious Toddler

 

Some kids are anxious right out of the womb. Anxious toddlers can be difficult to parent because they don’t have the language yet to express how they feel. They are more sensitive. They are pickier. They are more overwhelmed. And all of those emotions are wrapped up in a 3-foot tall little person with newly developed language and no self-regulation. Yikes! That is a recipe for disaster.

 

If you are a parent of an anxious toddler you might find yourself knee deep in toileting issues, bedtime fears, and sensitive feelings. You might be constantly scraping your toddlers off the floor and putting them back together. That can get tiring for both of you.

 

So how are you supposed to parent an anxious toddler?

Here are some Do’s and Don’t:

 

Parenting a toddler is hard, but parenting an anxious toddler is truly rough going! Here are some do's and don'ts to get through it!

Do:

 Teach your child an emotional vocabulary and do it quick!

One of the reasons toddlers have so many tantrums is due to their inability to completely verbalize how they feel. This can get frustrating for little minds who have much to say, but no vocabulary to say it. Imagine if you were scared of the tub, but didn’t have the words to verbalized it. You would be left with no choice but to thrash around and fight your way out of the situation.

 

Even though you might feel like your toddler has a great vocabulary, having a great emotional vocabulary is a different thing completely. Toddlers struggle with being able to #1) correctly identify their emotions and #2) find the right word to describe that emotion. That’s tricky for even some adults (you know who you are)!

 

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The best thing you can do for your anxious toddler is to:

 

#1. Identify the feeling word attached to their emotion.

 

For example, when your toddler is turning into a puddle because she’s afraid to take a bath, you can say:

 

“You are scared to take a bath.”

 

When you do this you are helping her connect the emotional feeling with the emotional word (scared).

 

#2. Talk for them when they are upset.

 

After you label their emotion, take it one step further. If you know or have a good idea why your toddler is scared, help your child verbalize it. Keep your sentences simple.

 

For example, you could say:

 

“The bath water scares you. The bath water is loud. Loud sounds can be scary for you.”

 

When you do this you are showing your child how to express the emotions they are feeling. It also shows your toddlers that you get it and that you understand how they are feeling.

 

I know this sounds crazy simple, but trust me it helps! For a more detailed explanation on how to get your toddlers to express their feelings click here.

 

 Help your toddlers face their fears.

 

You want to help your toddlers develop skills to face their fears. If anxiety is showing up this early, they more than likely have a nervous disposition. The early you can give your toddlers the tools to face their worries, the better the prognosis long-term.

 

Play Detective

 

The world can be overwhelming for anxious toddlers. It is a brand new world full of sounds, images and smells they’ve never experienced. Toddlers can get freaked out by shadows, masks, and strange noises.

 

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Instead of always quickly removing them from the situation, play detective instead. Have the person take off the mask and let them hold it.  Turn the light on and discover what is making the shadow. Help them figure out where the noise is coming from.

 

If your toddler gets upset by other people’s emotions, help provide a narrative for what they are seeing. Explain to them why that person is upset and that it is okay to have other emotions other than happy. Sometimes helping put those emotions in context helps relieve the anxiety.

 

When kids learn how to play detective, they learn how to solve their own fears.

 

Play Games to Help Fears

 

You can help anxious toddlers through games. If they are afraid of being without you, you can play hide and seek. Start off simple with a fun game in the living room. As your child gets more used to searching for you, expand the area you play in.

 

If your child is afraid to eat new foods, incorporate foods into your play. Get toothpicks and make cubes of various foods. Let them pick up the food with the toothpicks and have them use various dips to paint. Encourage licking and eating as they play. Chocolate pudding and whip cream are great substitutes for regular paint.

 

If your toddlers have an issue with textures, help them work through this in their play. Have them do messy play. Have a wet towel so they can clean up right away.

 

Preview What is Happening

 

Anxious toddlers want to know what is going on, more than even the typical toddler. Narrate what is going on throughout your toddler’s day. Let your toddler know what will be happening next. Give them plenty of warning before transitioning to another activity.

 

Don’t:

 Discount or demean their fears.

 

As parents, we want to make things better for our kids. That is why we often tell them things like, “That’s not scary” and “Don’t be scared of that!” But inadvertently we have discounted their fears. Yes, a bath may not be scary to you, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t scary to them. Avoid telling toddlers that they shouldn’t be scared. Instead show them why they don’t have to be scared.

 

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It goes without saying, it is never a good idea to make fun of or demean your toddler for their fears. This will only make them shut down and make them not trust you with their emotions.

 

Accommodate their fears without building skills

 

You don’t want to blindly accommodate their fears. When you constantly cater to children’s fears, they never learn how to defeat them.

 

Help your child slowly learn how to address their fears one step at a time.

 

Force them to do things without building skills

 

Conversely, you don’t want to be insensitive to your toddler’s fears and force them to do things before they are ready. Take small steps towards big goals.

 

Balance is key!

 

Parenting an anxious toddler can be difficult at times. For a  more in-depth look on this topic read How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler.

 

What is your biggest struggle with your anxious toddler? Leave a comment for some additional support.

 

Do you know someone with an anxious toddler? Share this article with them!

 

Other Articles on Toddler Anxiety:

10 Signs of an Anxious Toddler

Want to Know Why I Won’t Go Potty?

10 Strange Reasons Why Kids Hate Bath Time & How to Fix it.

5 Ways to Help Separation Anxiety and Finally Pee in Peace!

2 responses to “Ask the Child Therapist Episode 13: Do’s and Don’ts When Parenting Your Anxious Toddler”

  1. Sarah says:

    My 4year old has been dinonced with anxiety disorder and depression. She has been potty trained since 13 months old. But for about a year or so she will not go poop and when have been to doctors and did every test you can think of but still she says her poor and pee hurt. They ended up putting her on some meds for anxiety and depression. But she does ok for about two weeks then it like we have to train her all over again. She will not believe us that it won’t hurt. What can we do. We have tried everything from books to play-dough to superhero to coloring painting. What else waiching a movie playing a game. Nothing seems to last if work. She will go just little poops and hold the rest then she gets backed up and has to go to hospital. But she is on meds to keep them soft and she still ends up so bad that she try’s to hurt her self. What can we do.

    • Natasha Daniels says:

      Hi Sarah,
      Sorry to hear about your daughter’s struggles. That can be very overwhelming and exhausting. I actually see this issue often in my therapy practice. It is not an easy issue to fix, but there are some things you can do to try and help…

      Definitely and steady dose of Miralax and fiber gummies (with your doctor’s guidance). But along with that – most parents don’t delve into the fears around the toilet. Yes, kids are afraid their poop will hurt, but more often than not there was a fear that caused them to not poop in the first place.

      Lots of children don’t make progress until the initial fear is worked through. For some ideas on what that fear could be, refer to my article on toileting fears https://www.anxioustoddlers.com/potty-training/.

      Once you tackle the fear related to the toileting you can help encourage her to go with a potty challenge treasure box. You can set it up so she gets a small prize every time she goes. For some kids I have even started reinforcers for them just sitting on the toilet (depending on what their fear is).

      Prizes won’t help though until the fear is discovered and worked through. I hope that helps a bit!

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