No matter your age, there is a huge difference between being stressed and having an anxiety disorder. While stress is no small matter and can certainly affect our overall wellness, an anxiety disorder is a serious mental health condition that affects an estimated one in eight kids, and it can impact children as early as toddlerhood.
No matter the nature of your toddler’s anxiety disorder, socializing can be an exhausting endeavor. She may resist the opportunity to make new friends or even spend time with people she already knows, because the thought of being around others makes her fearful in ways she can’t understand or explain. The good news is that once she gets over the hurdle of conquering one social situation, the confidence boost she’ll get will have a domino effect, encouraging her to continue to build new relationships and nurture existing ones.
If your toddler is showing signs of anxiety, it’s important to get a diagnosis from a mental health professional, because helping your child find ways to cope with anxiety as early as possible is critical to her ongoing well-being. Socialization is also extremely important as she gets older and ventures out into the world on her own. Not only is it a life skill, it will also act as its own anxiety-coping technique.
Signs my toddler has an anxiety disorder
Children can start showing signs of high anxiety even in infancy. Being easily upset and unable to calm down, fearing new situations and new people, and having intense reactions to mild discomforts (such as a wet diaper) may indicate an anxious baby.
In toddlers, the signs are sometimes similar to — and mistaken for — autism symptoms. Signs your toddler is anxious may include:
- Extreme shyness around people, even those she’s met before
- Severe separation anxiety from parents
- Intense attachment to routines and strong reaction when those routines are disrupted or changed
- Unusual sensitivity to noise or tactile stimulation
- Picky eating and dramatic aversion to trying new foods
- Severe sleep issues
Some of these signs of anxiety are understandably construed as misbehavior. If you notice one or more of these symptoms in your child and they don’t improve with time and disciplinary measures, it indicates that she may be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or a similar condition. Perhaps most importantly, trust your instincts when it comes to your little one. If she suddenly has issues with her typical routines and the people involved in them, it’s a good idea to take her to a mental health specialist for an emotional wellness check-up.
Why is my toddler anxious?
Just like with adults, there are many reasons toddlers might be anxious, including fears of:
- The unknown
- Being judged
- Being vulnerable
Getting a diagnosis from a mental health professional will help you understand the source of your little one’s anxiety, which will help you create a care plan and coping strategies to help keep it under control.
10 Top tips for socializing anxious toddlers
It will likely take a village to care for a toddler with anxiety. Your child’s psychologist, pediatrician, other parent, siblings, and babysitter will all play important roles in helping her find and navigate socialization opportunities. Here are 10 top tips for socializing anxious toddlers.
Talk it out. Your child may be able to tell you exactly what it is about a social situation that exacerbates her anxiety. For example, maybe she doesn’t like going on playdates with more than one kid at a time, or maybe she got nervous because there were large dogs at the park you visited, and it made it difficult to focus on playing with her friends. Be sure to talk to your little one when you see her struggling, but wait until you’re home or in a place where you know she’s comfortable so she’ll feel more willing to open up to you.
Be an interpreter. Keep in mind that while your toddler undoubtedly wants to share what’s bothering her, she may not be able to verbalize it, because some of the underlying causes of anxiety don’t yet make sense to her developing mind. If she tries to communicate with you but her logic doesn’t make sense, try to read between the lines rather than overwhelm her with follow-up questions. For example, if your child says she’s afraid a friend she plays with every day won’t like her anymore, she may be trying to tell you she’s fearful of being judged for having a new haircut, for having a new toy, or even for no reason at all.
Be a role model for your child. Show her how fun and easy it can be to meet new people as well as appropriate ways to respond in social situations. It’s also helpful to talk to her about your own apprehension about social situations — even if you don’t have anxiety and are naturally outgoing, everyone has experienced a time when they felt like a fish out of water. It can be really helpful for your youngster to hear that even grown-ups feel a bit overwhelmed around others from time to time.
Encourage hobbies. Even if your child takes on an activity that doesn’t involve others — such as drawing or building a collection — pursuing a passion can open the doors for making friends with others who have common interests. Hobbies can also be a way to teach your kids about icebreakers. For instance, if you have an aspiring artist, you can suggest she introduce herself to a new classmate by saying, “It’s nice to meet you. Would you like to see the picture I drew of my dog?”
Facilitate introductions. Even if she watches you meet new people, she may still need help making friends. When an opportunity arises and her anxiety symptoms don’t seem too intense, introduce her to a peer. Remember, though, not to push your child — the goal is to present and simplify social opportunities.
Practice makes perfect. Role play with your child for anticipated social interactions that make her nervous. For example, if your little one is going to a birthday party where she’ll meet new people, let her practice introducing herself, sharing a toy, or inviting someone to play a game. Also try to learn as much as you can about a place or event your child will be going to. For example, if your child has joined a Tee Ball league, talk to her about what to expect: there will be coaches and teammates her age she’ll get to meet, they’ll practice and play on the field you pass on the drive to daycare every morning, and so on. These details will help when it comes to effective role playing.
Praise brave behavior. It may take some time for an anxious toddler to feel comfortable in new social situations, but telling her you’re proud of her with each interaction is a great way to keep her motivated. Try to use language that doesn’t acknowledge the stress of the situation. “You made some new friends today, and it looked like you were having a lot of fun. I’m really proud of you for being so kind and welcoming to people you just met!” is more positive than, “I know that was really scary for you, but you did a great job of talking to people you didn’t know.”
Study together. There are great books that can help kids with anxiety build their social skills, such as parent-recommend picks like The Night Before Preschool, How to Be a Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them, and Thanks for the Feedback, I Think. Similarly, reading books or watching shows and movies with assertive, socially-confident kid characters may help inspire your child to put herself in new social situations.
Work with your child’s teachers and babysitters. Daycare can be an especially challenging place for toddlers who have difficulty socializing, and leaving a little one with a babysitter — even if they’ve spent time together before — can be very stressful. Be sure her caregivers know about her anxiety and the triggers that may provoke a meltdown. Teachers, babysitters, and nannies can also let you know about improvements they see, such as your child giving a show-and-tell presentation at daycare or making a new friend on the playground while on a babysitting outing.
Be compassionate. Socializing can be exhausting, even for kids who don’t have anxiety. Compound that with being a toddler who is still learning about the world around her, and you’ve got the potential for one worn-out kiddo. With that in mind, allow your little one to take breaks as needed. If you’re at a gathering and her anxiety seems to be rising, offer to take a break with her, but don’t phrase it in a way that makes it sound like you’re escaping a social situation, which could reinforce the idea that socializing is scary. For example, instead of asking, “Would you like to take a break from the party and go outside?” ask, “I heard there is a flower garden outside. Would you like to go see it with me?” If she needs a break, she’ll be glad for the opportunity to go with you, and if she’s feeling confident, she may decide to stay and mingle a while longer.
Socializing an anxious toddler can be a stressful process for parents, babysitters, and other caregivers, but most importantly, your little one. Keep an eye out for signs that your child is struggling with an anxiety disorder, and take her to see a mental health professional as early on as possible. Once you have a diagnosis, you’ll better understand the source of her fears — and the sooner you’ll be able to help her build social skills and coping strategies that will last her a lifetime.