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Helping toddlers manage new situations

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Many children may be sensitive or fearful when faced with new situations.
  • Most children learn to cope with these feelings.
  • If your child’s anxiety is preventing them from participating in activities that other children enjoy, they may need additional support.
  • There are ways to help your child cope with new situations. This may include teaching your child to breathe slowly and giving your child time to adjust.

Why is my child afraid of new situations?

Many children are outgoing, curious and adventurous. But some are more cautious and are sensitive or fearful when they face new situations.

If you have a sensitive child, you will need to support them, encourage them to be social and brave, and show them how to act in new situations.

Some level of fear and anxiety when facing new situations and experiences is normal. When children feel afraid or anxious, their brains respond according to their survival instinct. Their adrenaline levels rise to help them escape danger. Very sensitive children can be even more alert and react more strongly to new situations. They may instinctively experience a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.

If a child has these feelings often, their fears can grow bigger and bigger. Even thinking about the situation can make them anxious. To cope, they may try to avoid the situation, which makes it even harder to handle a new experience next time.

Most children learn to cope with these feelings. But your child might need extra support if they feel more anxious than other children their age, or if their fears and anxieties are preventing them from participating in activities that other children enjoy.

What type of new situations might make my toddler anxious or shy?

Young children can find these situations difficult to manage:

  • getting their first haircut
  • going to preschool, day care or school
  • problems in the family, like family breakdown
  • visiting a health professional like a doctor or dentist
  • encoutering something they’re scared of, like a spider
  • talking to new people or engaging in a group
  • being away from you (remember that some degree of separation anxiety is normal until children reach preschoool age)

Not all children experiencing anxiety will be able to tell you that they feel afraid. You might notice they have physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, diarrhoea, stomach aches or headaches. Other signs of anxiety in toddlers are being irritable, having trouble concentrating and being tired.

How can I help my child?

It’s important to acknowledge your child’s worries and not to force them into situations that make them scared. Gently encourage them to be brave and try something new.

When in a new situation, give your child time to adjust and to get used to it. Stay with them and gently encourage them to explore and play with the other children. After a while, you can move away for a short time. But make sure your child knows you are there and come back before they get upset.

Try not to comfort your child too much, because this will teach them that it's a scary situation and rewards their shyness. Instead, reward ‘brave’ behaviour and tell them what they did well (for example, playing with another child or making eye contact).

If your child gets very anxious, show them how to calm themselves down by breathing slowly – breathe in for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds and breathe out for 3 seconds.

If the situation is too much for them, you can break it into manageable chunks. For example, if they are very scared of going swimming, suggest sitting and watching others swim for a while. When they are comfortable, try dangling their legs in the water. Praise their achievements and remind them it’s good just to make an effort.

It’s also important to show your child how to behave. Make sure you appear confident and outgoing yourself so your child can see how it’s done.

When should I seek help?

Sometimes, shyness or anxiety in new situations may be a sign of another problem such as a speech problem, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or an anxiety disorder. If you’re concerned, or if your child’s fears of new situations are seriously affecting their ability to learn or play and making them very distressed, you can seek professional advice from:

  • your child’s teacher or care worker
  • your doctor, who may refer you to a paediatrician or psychologist
  • your local children’s community health centre

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2022

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