Experiencing manageable amounts of anxiety can help a child build coping resources. Excessive amounts of anxiety are another story.
When toddlers are routinely exposed to excessive amounts of anxiety, they cannot learn from the stressful situations or tune in to their feelings. When feelings of anxiety overpower a toddler, experimentation, play, and humor are no longer available for dealing with them. Instead, the child can only resort to more extreme psychological measures as a way to keep functioning, and these extreme measures narrow the child’s abilities to appraise reality, feel, and learn.
The situations that might create too much anxiety for your child depend on your child. Toddlers are unique, each with their own little temperament, so each will experience a given situation in their own way. What causes extreme anxiety in one child might prompt happy, excited feelings in another. For example, jumping into a swimming pool or climbing a big tree can fill one child with glee while another child may be terrified to the point of panic.
In spite of individual differences in children, some common anxiety-provoking situations are worth avoiding on a routine basis as you care for your toddler. Here are just a few:
- Having frequent and long separations from the preferred parent in the absence of a trusted substitute. Providing consistent and familiar caregivers to your child is important.
- Making global critical comments such as “You are bad” or “You never listen.” Such blanket negative statements create anxiety because children tend to believe they are intrinsically bad. Instead, focus on the specific behavior by saying, for example, “Hands are not for hitting. Hands are for eating and drawing and playing with toys. What else can you do with your hands?”
- Blaming the child for how the parent feels with such statements as “You exhaust me” or “You are going to give me a heart attack.” It is better to own your feelings. You might say, “I am very tired today” or “I need to take a deep breath.”
- Ridiculing or dismissing a toddler’s fears. It is important to listen and try to learn more about what your toddler is feeling. By doing so, you help your child reflect and learn more about himself or herself.
- Giving excessive attention to fostering a child’s intelligence. Too much focus and structure related to teaching creates early anxiety about performance. The child’s interest in learning becomes tied to parental approval rather than the intrinsic pleasure of mastering a new skill. The most effective early learning comes from spontaneous, pleasurable exchanges that are in line with the child’s interests.
All parents do or say things at one time or another that create feelings of anxiety for their child. Importantly, our children are forgiving and love us enough to allow for our mistakes as they continue their development and growth. Anxiety-provoking situations will occur, and the good news is that making situations manageable is all a matter of balance.