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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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