Our children are creatures of routine, and as the coronavirus crisis continues to affect all of us, their well-being is being impacted in profound ways — and manifesting itself in feelings like toddler anxiety. In my household, my two-year-old, a champion sleeper since she was an infant, is refusing her naps… and waking up before dawn in tears. All of a sudden, she wants the lights blazing at night, the door left open, and Mommy and Daddy stationed by her side. While she isn’t aware of exactly what’s happening in the world outside, she knows that she is scared. So how do we help our toddlers battle anxiety during this bizarre reality that has abruptly robbed us of our normal lives?
Recognize signs of toddler anxiety
Since toddlers often are unable to articulate their deep feelings, we as parents need to be sensitive to possible displays of anxiety. GoZen!, an online resource that helps kids and parents manage stress, has a helpful chart that identifies eight ways a child’s anxiety may show up as something else, including difficulty sleeping, anger, defiance, chandeliering (when someone who is calm suddenly erupts into an outburst) and lack of focus.
Regression is a natural response
Regression is another way anxiety may present itself in children. The New York Times explains it this way: “Regressions happen, in part, because kids want more from their parents when they feel unsettled or anxious, and regressions ensure that they’ll get that extra attention.” This type of behavior often occurs during a routine change, and can signal a child’s need to exert control over a situation. Examples of regressive behavior include bathroom accidents, trouble sleeping and clinginess. In my house, my daughter has been asking for baby bottles again throughout the night, which is a classic sign of regressive behavior.
Help our kids feel safe
Experts tell parents to treat their children with compassion, and to give them the attention they need to feel safe and secure. Kids might need a little extra love and care — and that’s okay. While you don’t want to reward bad behavior, remember that your child is telling you more with his actions than his words, and that regressions or other displays of anxiety aren’t necessarily your toddler being “bad,” but rather a reaction to a disturbance in his life. Reward good behavior, but put your impulse to punish your child on pause.
Anxious adults affect kids
You also may want to consider how your actions or adult conversations are affecting your child’s emotional well-being. The Child Mind Institute says that a major driver of stress in children is exposure to their anxious parents; the institute’s expert advice is to stay calm, and not give away signs of your stress. “Be aware of your facial expressions, the words you choose, and the intensity of the emotion you express, because kids are reading you. They’re little sponges and they pick up on everything.”
So – if you’ve been talking about COVID-19 or about the economy in the front of your young children under the assumption they don’t understand what you’re saying, stop. Even if toddlers can’t grasp the nuances of the situation, they are aware things have changed in their lives, and they can feel your anxiety. Stay calm and steady, and make your little ones feel as safe and protected as possible.
Meditation apps like Headspace and Insight Timer might help with your own stress levels, and here are some breathing exercises to try.
Adjusting to the new normal
Do your best to establish a new routine, and to keep it consistent with planned mealtimes, bedtimes and activities. Here are some of my suggestions for engaging activities to try with your toddler.
And remember to focus on the positive as your family adjusts to this new normal. There is always light in the midst of darkness, even during this pandemic. Keep a spirit of optimism; you may be surprised at how much better it makes your child — and you — feel.