It’s not accurate to assume that toddlers are unaware of the challenges going on in their families, communities, and worlds. While it’s true that they may not understand the details of particular incidents, they absolutely can pick up on the stress reactions of their loved ones. (And the fact that they can’t understand actually makes it WORSE for them – imagine feeling confused and overwhelmed, and nothing being within your control.)
Sudden changes in the family such as a job loss, new baby, move, or death are common triggers, but not the only ones.
Unfortunately, most toddlers don’t yet have the ability to verbalize their distress to us. Instead, their frustration and worry gets communicated through behavior. When you know what signs to watch for, you’ll be better at equipped at recognizing their stress and responding to it effectively.
8 signs of stress in toddlers:
Changes in sleeping and eating habits
Sleeping and eating are often the first things to go awry when a toddler is stressed. If your “good sleeper” is suddenly very wakeful throughout the night or waking up earlier than normal, there’s a chance they may be feeling stressed. If your three-year-old had a reasonable interest in food before and is now refusing to eat anything but grapes, that can also be a sign. Of course, bedtime and eating challenges are complicated and can be affected by a number of things; read on to determine whether other signs also ring a bell for you.
Crying or tantrums more often than usual
Of course, crying and tantrums are typical in toddlerhood, so it’s important to understand what looks “normal” in your specific child, so that you’ll recognize when things are seeming off. You may notice a difference in frequency of tantrums, or the intensity (how long they last), or both.
Being clingy or withdrawn
When children feel anxious or stressed, they’re likely to stick close to their sources of comfort.
Having more potty accidents than usual
Regression can occur long after toilet training has been accomplished, and can arise for multiple reasons. If the stressful situation in your family causes temporary changes to the child’s schedule or home life, this can confuse them. They may get distracted and have a harder time listening to their bodies’ cues. Caregivers feeling stressed themselves may respond to these new accidents with surprise and criticism, causing toddlers to feel ashamed and reluctant to keep trying. In addition, toddlers with new baby siblings may see the coddling and care babies gets from their parents, and desire to have this for themselves.
Falling down a lot, despite usually having decent balance
Once again, clumsiness in this age group is common, so the key is to notice when something looks different in your particular child.
Aggression against others or self
New changes (and the lack of control kids experience with them) can build a growing sense of frustration in young children. Little ones lack the ability to say, “I’m worried,” so their needs for reassurance and support may go unnoticed. When there’s rising tension in their bodies, and something triggers it, they may respond with hitting or kicking.
Sucking fingers or pacifier more than usual
Distressed toddlers are going to lean on familiar strategies for self-soothing in an attempt to cope with their feelings. That may look like clinging to their caregivers (as mentioned above), or it may look like sucking their fingers – even if they’ve previously stopped the habit.
Anxiety at bedtime and/or nightmares
While a previous point touched on kids’ sleep schedules getting messed up, this one is more focused on little ones expressing worries about bedtime, whether it be about the darkness, sleeping alone, or something more specific. While they may not verbalize the fear directly, the anxiety may be evidenced by nighttime clinginess and crying that isn’t seen during the daytime. When I start working with a new family, I always ask whether the kiddo is complaining of nightmares, because it’s such a tell-tale sign that things don’t feel right inside.
Enough about the signs of stress! What can you actually do about it to help?
- Maintain consistent routines, even/especially during times of big change. While this can be hard with certain situations (take a cross-country move, for example), sticking to the typical schedule as much as possible will be helpful.
- Set aside 10-15 minutes daily for distraction-free, child-lead play. Children process their thoughts and feelings (and come to understand new things) through play! Playing with you helps them feel more connected to you, which reduces stress and increases their sense of safety. Kids who feel safe and supported are much less likely to become clingy or aggressive.
- Respond to challenging behaviors with lots of calm and empathy. It’s understandable to feel frustrated about regression or tricky behaviors, but nothing is gained by showing your exasperation to your child. Here are a few examples of what you can say:
- “You need extra Mama time, so you’re holding on tight.”
- “Looks like you had an accident in your underwear. That happens sometimes!”
- “You’re having a hard time being away from me at bedtime. You feel scared.”
- Set predictable, consistent limits on inappropriate behaviors. Say these with lots of patience, but make sure you follow through! For kids, consistency means safety. Here are some examples:
- “You feel mad at Daddy. It’s okay to feel mad, but it’s not okay to hit me. You can hit the pillow.”
- “You like to suck your fingers when you’re upset. Let’s try cuddling a stuffed animal instead.”
- “You want to wear diapers again like the baby does. You’re for wearing underwear, but I can still snuggle and sing to you like I do to the baby.”
- Make bedtime a soothing ritual: bath, book, cuddles, then lights out.