What are the Signs of an Anxious Toddler? (by Natasha Daniels)

What are the signs of an anxious toddler? Many parents will miss the early signs of toddler anxiety, as it can often look vastly different than what we might expect. 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 personality. Some early precursors to anxiety are often seen in behavioral and sensory issues.

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.


Natasha Daniels
About the Author: Natasha Daniels

Natasha is a Child Therapist and a mother to three vibrant, challenging and insightful children who keep her on her toes! She created her website, Anxious Toddlers, to offer support, guidance and laughs to parents of toddlers. She has spent the last fifteen years working with toddlers in her practice and helping families with parenting issues at Hill Child Counseling – ‘Sometimes toddlers can feel like a different species and I hope to help unlock the mystery of how to keep your little one smiling, laughing and enjoying the moment one day at a time.’

Natasha is a Clinical Social Worker and she received her post-graduate training in infant and toddler mental health at The Harris Institute. She is one of only a handful of child therapists who offer a specialty in toddler mental health and who has a practice that offers counseling to families on toddler parenting issues.

She spends half her week in her practice and the other half of her week soaking up the innocence of her children and enjoying the simpler things in life.

Her book How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler is available at all major book stores or it can be purchased directly from Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

She can be reached at .

You can find Natasha at her website, Anxious Toddlers, on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram, or making parenting videos for Curious.com. 

One Comment

Mary Ann

My daughter exhibited all these traits. She was later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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