Anxiety in toddlers and preschoolers

Emerging Minds, Australia, October

Related to Child anxiety

Resource Summary

This resource has been developed to help parents understand and recognise anxiety in toddlers and preschool-aged children. It provides strategies for preventing anxiety and building resilience in young children.


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. In this resource, the term ‘parent’ includes biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, and other caregivers who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Anxiety in toddlers and preschoolers

In toddlers and preschool-aged children (around 2–4 years), some anxiety is common and a normal part of their development as they explore their environment. At this age, children may feel anxiety around new experiences, changes in their routine, and being away from their parents and/or with unfamiliar people, for example when they start childcare or preschool.

Some common fears in toddlers include loud noises, strangers and separation from their main caregiver. Preschoolers might start to be afraid of being on their own, the dark or monsters.

Anxiety can also be related to new independence with activities such as toileting, eating and sleeping. These are all common reactions and with care and reassurance these feelings generally pass.

However, if these feelings and behaviours persist it can be a sign children are having difficulties with anxiety and might need some extra support. For example, if they have worries that:

  • cause them a lot of distress
  • don’t go away
  • get worse; or
  • interfere with their daily life.

Signs of anxiety

Young children experience anxiety in a range of ways that can sometimes be hard for parents to recognise.

At age 2–4 years, children can’t always clearly explain their anxious feelings or thoughts in words, so anxiety can show up as physical symptoms. Your little one might complain about tummy aches or have trouble falling asleep. It is important to rule out other possible causes with your family doctor/GP who can help to assess if there are any physical reasons for the symptoms your child is experiencing. To learn more about the role of a GP, watch this video.

Anxiety can also show up as behaviours that people might interpret as a child being ‘naughty’ or ‘defiant’. For example, by refusing to get dressed to go to childcare your child might be trying to avoid a situation that triggers anxiety.

Separation anxiety is children’s fear of being away from their parent/s or main caregivers and is the most common type of anxiety in this age group. Your child might cry or cling to you whenever you need to separate from them, for example, when they start play group/child care or are left with grandparents. This response is normal for children during any new transition, as they rely on their parents for safety and support of their daily physical and emotional needs. However, this can become a concern when a child becomes significantly distressed and finds it difficult to calm down at play group or childcare, even with support of familiar and supportive carers and educators around them.

Hear educator and researcher, Dr Kathryn Hopps, discuss how to support children through the transition to early learning and primary school in the podcast, Supporting children through school transitions during COVID-19.

What you can do

If your child is experiencing distressing levels of separation anxiety, it’s natural that you may also feel upset and unsure of what to do. But avoiding the separation won’t help and can make anxiety continue. All children need to learn to spend time away from caregivers by the time they start school, but some will require more patience and support than others to reach this level of independence.

Gently encourage and help your child by gradually introducing them to new places and people. For example, if you plan to leave them somewhere new, like a childcare centre, preschool or friend’s house, spend time there with your child before the first ‘separation’. If it’s possible, try a short separation at first and gradually increase the time apart. Even if you think it’s less painful for both of you if you just slip away, it is important to always say goodbye – this fosters trust and will help reassure your child because they know what to expect. Otherwise, your child might be confused and upset when they realise you’ve gone. This will cause them a lot of stress and leaving next time will be harder. Tell them when you’re leaving and when you’ll be back, even if you are not sure they will understand the time frame. When you return to pick them up, spend time together giving them lots of praise about how they handled your time apart and notice new things that they’re trying.

‘When my daughters started day care I found it really helpful talking to the day care centre and seeing if there was a little job they could do when they arrived, like feed the fish or set up the pillows for story time. It works both as a distraction and empowered them to have a responsibility at day care.’

Nadia, mother of two, South Australia

At this age, building your child’s resilience is key to minimising the impact of anxious feelings and preventing anxiety problems in the future.

For more practical strategies on building resilience visit the Raising Children Network.

Strengthening your relationship with your child can help to prevent anxiety and build up their resilience skills. You can:

  • make time for one-on-one play – even five minutes a day can make a huge difference to a child
  • pay attention so you can praise your child for things you notice about them and what they do – this builds self-esteem
  • learn skills together – like naming feelings or slow breathing – so you can support each other to use them when needed.

Supporting children to manage new situations early in life will help them build confidence to deal with new experiences and stressful situations, providing a great foundation for resilience as they grow and face challenges later in life.

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