My son developed a “fear” of slides.
I put quotation marks around that word because he never admitted that he was afraid. But whenever we asked if he’d like to try the slide, he simply walked the other way, shrugging his shoulders and saying, “No, maybe not right now.”
And it really wasn’t a fear so much as a mild anxiety.
We just had to listen to his words- not right now. He didn’t say NEVER. He said he wasn’t ready RIGHT NOW and he was communicating that with us as plain as day.
As a frequenter of parks and playgroups, I’ve seen several toddlers in this situation. Sometimes the fear is about playground equipment. More often, it’s a fear of strangers or dogs or the water park. And I’ve seen way too often well-meaning adults scoop their kiddos up and force them to do it anyway.
My heart aches for the child every time.
I guess I understand why parents feel this urge. It can be alarming to see our children “fall behind” their peers. While all the other 2 year olds were sliding down with glee and even turning around to climb right back up the slide again, here was Rocket- perching himself at the steering wheel to “drive to Indiana to buy raw milk,” all from the safe, unmoving platform of the playground floor.
But hey, he was having fun. Why force him down the slide when he’s perfectly happy in the other corners of the playground?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a mom. The worried mama thoughts did pop up in my head – Did he have a traumatic experience with slides that I missed? Will he feel left out as all his friend slide down so fearlessly? Should I DO SOMETHING? But I annihilated these thoughts as quickly as they came.
HE was telling me as clearly as possible, in English words, what was going on. HE WASN’T READY.
So I took a backseat. My husband and I talked about it and decided on the same thing we always do:
Follow the child’s lead.
It’s a mantra in our household.
There is no invisible time schedule for which kids have to learn their skills. He walked later than most kids. He talked earlier than most kids. None of his skill acquisition depended in any way on what other kids were doing, and neither should this.
To follow the child’s lead means to accept that there is nothing wrong with your child’s natural pace of learning. He just wasn’t ready to slide yet; nothing needed to be fixed.
We had to trust our child to know when it was the right time. Only he could decide that.
As parents, we are not here to force knowledge and skills based on OUR agendas. We are not here to pull a number out of our butts and arbitrarily decide “alright, you better know how to do THIS by THIS age.” Why? Because all the others kids are doing it? No. I don’t think so.
We are the learner’s assistants. The real learning lies in the learner. A good teacher, and we as parents are all our children’s first teachers, is empathetic of the child’s needs and aware of the child’s readiness. A good teacher realizes that most of the learning is done not because the teacher taught it, but because the student sought it. We are here for guidance, encouragement, and to freely give all the love that they need. We can offer direction and facts, but it’s a waste of time unless the student is ready to retain it.
So that’s exactly what we did- mostly nothing at all.
We waited. Patiently.
We continued with gentle encouragement of using the slide, but when he expressed disinterest, we were quick to let it go. We literally took a backseat on the playground floor, with our pretend safety belts on, cheering him on as he “drove to Indiana to buy raw milk.” We entered his world instead of trying to make him enter ours.
And suddenly out of nowhere, on Memorial Day weekend, our son mastered the slide.
Now he can’t get enough of it.
I wanted to write about how to reduce anxiety in toddlers because this is an issue that pops up in just about every parent’s life. Sadly, I often see it handled with little care of the child’s emotions. How we respond plays a huge role in whether our children will overcome their anxieties with confidence or if their fears will escalate.
The first thing that parents of toddlers need to understand is this:
Anxieties in toddlers are not only normal, but they are even a sign of healthy development!
They are growing into little people and discovering so much about the world around them. It’s exciting and invigorating, but it’s a little scary too.
As babies, they don’t have much to fear. They haven’t yet learned that hot water from a faucet can burn them, that strangers can be bad people, that using the slide without first learning how to balance can lead to injuries. They don’t know that dogs can bite, that swallowing water can cause them to choke, that insects can sting. As babies, they are so innocent and naive about the world around them.
As they get older, they learn that things can go wrong. And they are absolutely right. Things DO go wrong. For them to learn this is a GOOD thing. If the curious little buggers didn’t learn that things go wrong, they would wind up in all kinds of danger! Developing anxieties as they step into this big world of ours and learn how to be independent is a sign that their development is right on track.
Don’t you get anxious sometimes in new environments? It’s a safety mechanism. We test the waters before we jump in. It’s perfectly normal and expected with healthy emotional and cognitive development. There is a fine line between being overly fearful and being sensibly cautious. You don’t want your child to cower from every new dog they see, but at the same time, you don’t want them to reach out to any animal without first getting the A-Okay from the owner either. To discover that happy medium is a process and they need your loving guidance to find it.
So what can you do to help ease their fears?
10 Tips On How To Reduce Anxiety In Toddlers
1) Follow The Child’s Lead.
I already mentioned this in the intro. It’s important!
When we started this parenting gig, neither my husband nor I had any idea what type of parents we’d be.
After our son was born, some of our parenting style emerged naturally- a portion of intuition, a sprinkle of our own personalities, and a dash of our upbringings thrown in the mix. But a lot of our parenting style was not innate so much as learned through lots of trial and error, research, and discovery.
Following the child’s lead was one of these discoveries for us and it has been validated time and time again.
We want our children to feel secure, empowered, and confident. This requires paying attention to their needs and being sensitive to their emotions.
We have to trust them to carve their own path rather than try to carve it for them. We are here for them. They are little souls shining from within and we are here to help them reach their fullest potential. We are NOT creating people from scratch. They already exist within those tiny bodies- unique spirits, unique personalities, unique callings waiting to be unearthed.
If we don’t listen to who they are, we will never truly meet our children. If we don’t listen, we will never be able to give them what they need.
So what does following the child’s lead mean when it comes to anxiety in toddlers?
For them to overcome their fears, we have to realize that their lives, anxieties and all, are their journeys. We can’t walk it for them. We can hold their hands, talk to them about their feelings, counsel them through their stresses, but it is ultimately their battle, not ours.
We can either be the parent that makes them do things anyway, ignoring that they are afraid, or we can empathize with them and help them overcome their fears right at the root, deep inside where it began.
This will not change as they get older. As children, as teenagers, as young adults, they will always have their own battles to fight. We can either try to understand them and help them through each one or we can be yet another obstacle amidst their difficulties.
The key is in our hand. Will we follow the child’s lead or will we try to make them follow ours? One path will produce strong, confident people and build a trusting parent/child relationship. The other is sure to backfire.
2) Reassure & Offer Security.
What do you do when babies cry? Pick them up. Hold them. Cradle them. Rock them. Sing to them. Comfort them. Soothe them. Warm them.
While a toddler is not a baby anymore, they are still in a transitional period of their lives. They still need you to reassure them and remind them that everything will be okay.
Be your child’s “safe spot”. Pretend there is a sign on your back that says “FREE CUDDLES, HUGS, AND LOVE, any time, any place.” It doesn’t matter when or where your child needs it, your job is to give it.
To find security in the outside world, they must first find security in you. Only once they feel secure in their home life can they begin to overcome their other external stresses. It all begins with a relationship- their bond with you.
Don’t expect a toddler to be completely independent and not need you for anything. It’s unrealistic. They are just coming out of babyhood!
If they are anxious about trying new things, try new things with them.
Be their rock, their security, as they explore the unknown.
For instance, if they are afraid of meeting new people, hold them in your arms as you enter a new environment. Laugh and play and talk to them. Let them meet new people from the safety of your arms before expecting them to feel safe enough to venture off on their own. Only once they are comfortable should you try to inch away. If it’s too soon, they’ll let you know.
Do not ruin your child’s trust by forcing them to do something when they are not ready. Their confidence is directly affected by their bond with a caregiver (you), so the worst thing you can possibly do is to push them right into their fear. If you force them down the slide when they’re telling you they’re not ready, they will not only be afraid of the slide, but also of you.
If you continue to force them into situations that scare them, they’ll stop opening up to you about their fears all together. Don’t ever do anything that will cause your children not to trust you.
3) Build Them Up.
It is so important to build our children up. Our words become their inner voice, so we must choose what we say very carefully.
Equip them with confidence. Give them direction.
Help them tackle this big, scary world by believing in them and making sure they know that we do.
4) Talk It Out.
If a toddler is uncertain about something, talk to them.
Talk to them on an emotional level- how they’re feeling. Ask if they’re scared. Sometimes, toddlers have a hard time putting things into words and may need help in expressing themselves. Like everything else, language is very new to them. Even if they aren’t big talkers, express empathy in your words. They probably understand more than you know.
Talk to them on a logical level. If they’re apprehensive about going into the water because they think it will be cold, what clues suggest that the temperature is fine? There are other kids playing in it. They seem to enjoy the temperature. The hot sun is out. It would probably feel good to have some cool water on their skin. Simple reasoning goes a long way with toddlers.
If they’re still apprehensive (and you should expect them to be), encourage them to do a test run. Maybe they should dip their toes in the water? Do it yourself to show them that it’s harmless.
Through guiding conversation, aim to eradicate their uncertainties and empower them so that they feel ready to jump in. But do not force them to do it. That’s a step that should be taken by them.
From you, they need security, empathy, and reasoning.
From you, they do not need pushiness or pressure. These things will only make them feel bad about themselves. They should feel like you are with them through their struggles, not like they are disappointing you.
Work towards having an open line of communication always with your toddler. They should feel like they can come to you with their worries or concerns without fearing how you might react.
5) Slow Down.
There is no race in achieving childhood skills. Competitive parenting does not work- it only puts undue pressures on the children.
Refuse to take part in ridiculous Mommy Wars!
Don’t worry about what your child’s peers are doing because it simply doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if they’re climbing Mt. Everest- if your eyes are focused on their accomplishments, you are doing your own child a disservice. Look at your child. Where are they? What do they need from you? Don’t worry about how far away they are from the goal. Just look at the next step that needs to be taken and hold their hand until they’re ready for you to let go.
When our children are learning how to walk, we wouldn’t dare discourage them when they fall behind. We wouldn’t say, “Oh man, Little Johnny is walking already. What’s wrong with you?” Of course not. We cheer them on, day after day, however long it takes.
And that is exactly what they need from us for everything else. When we pay attention to their pace and stop expecting them to follow this invisible schedule set by their peers, we foster optimal growth in them.
As parents, we need to stop thrusting them into uncomfortable situations because we think they should be ready by now. Instead, we should help make uncomfortable situations more comfortable by being there for them, empathetically, lovingly, and ever so patiently.
They’ll get there. At their own pace, they’ll get there.
6) Give Them Notice In Advance.
If there is a situation coming up that you can assume is anxiety-provoking for your tot, prepare them in advance.
It can be tempting NOT to tell them about it. The sooner we tell them, the more they’ll worry, right?
In a way, maybe. But it also gives them a chance to prepare. You can only walk them through their anxieties and guide them conversationally once you’ve given them the chance to feel and think about it on their own.
Withholding information from them does NOT make the anxiety go away. It only robs them of the opportunity to prepare to handle it.
If your child has separation anxiety, for example, warn them ahead of time if you are going to drop them off at daycare. Reassure them that you will be back after a certain amount of time. Don’t make a big deal about it. It will most likely be a smoother drop-off if you’re not springing it on them suddenly.
Oh and once you’re there, don’t sneak away while they’re distracted with a toy! It can be tempting to do so, but can really exasperate clinginess and exaggerate fears of being abandoned without warning.
Say a proper goodbye. Make it brief (dragging out the goodbye can also intensify separation anxiety) and always communicate to them that you will be back.
As adults, we don’t like to be surprised by things that make us anxious. Neither do our children. We owe it to them to let them know what to expect. Only in doing so will they best be able to overcome their fears.
Children play to help them understand the world around them. Imaginative play comes in all forms and helps children practice real life skills.
They dress up as doctors and veterinarians and chefs. They play house with kitchen sets and work on projects with their toy tools. Small world play (with plastic animals, little people, finger puppets, and other tiny props) gives them a fun bird’s eye view and a chance to control the outcome of an imaginary world from an omniscient perspective.
Role playing can also be used to help overcome anxiety in toddlers.
Sitting down for a heart-to-heart with a toddler can be intimidating for them. They may feel too much pressure to open up about their fears. However, get them playing and you’ll be surprised how much they’ll talk! It also gives YOU a chance to counsel them, even if it’s in the form of a stuffed animal talking in a high pitched voice.
Is your little girl afraid of monsters under the bed?
Role play with a doll who has a fear of monsters as well. What do you, as her Mommy, say to ease her worries?
Is your little boy afraid of bees?
Role play with plastic farm animals. Have the sheep remind the frightened pig that bees will not sting unless provoked! The cow can chime in with a funny moo voice that bees are important for our ecosystem and help our beautiful flowers grow.
With imaginative play, the possibilities for reducing anxiety in toddlers are endless.
8) Give Them Positive Reinforcement.
Give your children positive reinforcement when they take steps towards overcoming their anxieties.
They know what their fears are. And while it’s good to talk to them about their anxieties, it’s also important to be mindful that all the talk doesn’t put too much pressure on them and just cause them to feel down about themselves.
Make sure to offer genuine praise when they are brave. Applaud their accomplishments. Don’t exaggerate, as toddlers are very intuitive about false praise, but be sure to point it out when they are headed in the right direction. This will give them encouragement and confidence in themselves to achieve their goals.
9) Don’t Respond To Anxiety In Toddlers By Shaming Them.
Everyone has anxieties. I have yet to meet an adult who doesn’t. It is very natural, very human. Communicate this to your child. Your child should know that YOU get scared sometimes, too. So does Dad. And Grandma. And Grandpa. And every human being on this planet.
Never tease a toddler about anxieties. I’ve seen this happen in person. It was a little boy’s father. He was nervous about jumping on one of those inflatable bounce houses.
“What, are you scared? Are you being a little scaredy-cat?” The father said. He was grinning and obviously meant it in good humor, but I’ll never forget the sadness in that boy’s face.
There is no excuse EVER to tease a child for being anxious. Too many parents have unrealistic expectations of their toddlers and deal with it by trying to “toughen” them up- especially little boys. They have it in their minds that words like these will make their kids tough. Contrary to this mentality, having EMPATHY and being SENSITIVE to our children is how to instill confidence and strength in them.
Teasing them will not make them stronger- but it certainly will make their phobias stronger. And it will also serve as an example of how to treat other children who are scared. These kids are often the first to become bullies. They mimic the behavior they’ve been shown.
So please, no matter what your child’s fear is, DON’T demand them to be tough. THEY’RE KIDS. They’re learning. Don’t taunt them. Teach them.
Stop expecting them to be more independent than they are developmentally ready to be.
10) Set The Example.
One lesson I’ve learned as a parent- the best way to elicit ANY behavior out of your child is to adopt that behavior for yourself.
We parents, despite all our flaws and shortcomings, are heroes in their little eyes. They want to be just like us. They WILL be just like us. Our actions, our attitudes, our everything- they will hone in on and copycat our every move. It’s the nature of our species.
So if we want our anxious 2 year old to go down the slide on his own, we can’t just egg him on from the cozy grass. We have to get off our lazy adult butts, climb that playground, and go down the slide ourselves! As an added bonus, it’s tons of fun!
But to take it a step further…
If we want them to overcome their fears, we must become people who overcome our own. If we want them to be fearless, we must not be overly cautious or paranoid about every little thing. We must model what we want to see in them.
The other day, my husband jumped when a bee buzzed by. He has never been fond of bees.
But when he saw my son then jump at the sight of a different bee, he realized that his fear was no longer just affecting him.
The next time a bee buzzed by, he said, “Son, there is no reason to be afraid of bees. They won’t hurt you unless you threaten them.” He stood as still as he could, actively working on his own fear for the sake of his son. Because children are mirrors straight into ourselves. Our strengths, our weaknesses, they will reflect right back at us in what our children say and do.
That’s why becoming a parent is the best motivator in existence to change. Our actions will always speak volumes more than our words.
Our little loves will be whatever we show them to be.