Parental anxiety in the toddler years
Raising a child aged 1 to 3 can be challenging. It's normal to feel anxious about your toddler and your parenting style. But if you have severe anxiety that doesn't go away, it can affect your child and may prevent you from being the parent you'd like to be. Knowing what to expect from the toddler years and seeking support can help.
What happens during the toddler stage?
Toddlers haven't yet developed the social and emotional skills needed to control their behaviour.
Toddlers can be defiant, emotional or fussy (particularly when it comes to eating). Temper tantrums and outbursts of anger are common at this age.
Your child might do things you don't like, such as biting or hitting. They may find it hard to be separated from you or ‘act up’ to get your attention. Toddlers can be easily distracted and may find it hard to follow instructions.
But toddlers develop fast. They learn to talk, think and play. They may run around all over the place, fall over and explore everything. They are also learning to do things independently, like going to the toilet and dressing themselves, although they may still have trouble sleeping or may wet the bed.
What are common anxieties and fears?
It's normal to worry when you’re a parent. You might be concerned your toddler isn’t developing like other children or worry at times that they are sick. You might get anxious about how they handle social situations with friends or family or that they will behave badly in public.
Some parents become anxious that the world is a dangerous place for their child. They feel they must protect their toddler from being hurt or abducted and get very anxious when their child explores or takes risks.
Some parents become anxious about their children's success and will intervene to prevent them from failing.
It's normal to have these anxieties from time to time. But if they are becoming a problem for you, you should consider seeking help.
Why is it important to deal with anxiety?
Constant worrying can take over and get in the way of your parenting. Very anxious parents find it hard to get through the day. They might have trouble connecting emotionally with their child.
There is some evidence that parents with social anxiety are more likely to engage in behaviours that put their children at risk of anxiety, as well.
If you're always showing your child you're worried, they may learn to be worried about some situations too. Children learn from taking risks and making mistakes.
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. You may have had anxiety before you became a parent, or you may have developed the condition during or after pregnancy. Anxiety often comes and goes, but if you experience these symptoms a lot and they don't go away, seek help if you:
- can't stop worrying
- feel restless
- have trouble relaxing or sleeping
- find it hard to concentrate
- are getting very frustrated or irritable
- feel your heart racing often
How can I manage my anxiety?
When you're feeling anxious or overwhelmed, leave your toddler safely in a room for a few minutes and concentrate on slowing down your breathing. You could gently tense and relax your muscles one by one.
Stay in the present moment and focus on the actual problem. For example, if your child is sick, focus on how to make them more comfortable and don't worry about other tasks, such as housework or emails. Try not to stress about what could happen in the future.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, break things down into small tasks or steps. Use positive self-talk, for instance saying “I can handle this” to yourself.
It can help if you ‘make an appointment’ with yourself to worry about certain things later. By then, they might not seem so bad or important.
If you are often anxious, relaxation techniques and mindfulness training can help. You could keep a diary and identify scenarios that make you particularly anxious. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition and lots of exercise can also reduce anxiety.
Resources and support
Talk to your doctor. They may refer you to another health professional for counselling. Sometimes medication can help.
Talk things over with a family member or a friend.
Support from other parents can help with anxiety, so consider joining a parents’ group or playgroup. Contact the Child Health Centre in your area for more information.
You can also contact:
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
- PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) on 1300 726 306.
- ReachOut (including a list of resources to help you deal with anxiety).
- Call Pregnancy Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.
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Last reviewed: February 2022