While anxiety can be developmentally typical in toddlers, some kids experience higher levels than others.

As your toddler’s understanding of the world grows, you may notice that certain situations — like meeting new people or having bedtime fears — make them feel anxious. Anxiety is an emotion that’s common in toddlerhood.

You might worry about how anxiety is affecting your toddler’s development and emotional well-being.

Anxiety may be a concern if your child’s fears are out of proportion to the situation or when persistent or intense forms of fear and uncertainty disrupt your child’s life.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 7.1% of U.S. children have an anxiety disorder diagnosis. Meanwhile, around 10% of children ages 2 to 5 show signs of an anxiety disorder, according to research from 2019.

Toddlers with anxiety may have physical, emotional, and behavioral signs and symptoms.

Physical signs of anxiety

These may include:

  • anxious body movements or tics
  • complaints of a stomachache or headache, even if they don’t have any health conditions
  • restlessness
  • shaky when thinking of fears or in new situations
  • tense muscles
  • trouble falling or staying asleep

Emotional signs of anxiety

These may include:

  • anger or aggression
  • frequent crying
  • more sensitivity than usual
  • worries that interfere with day-to-day life
  • grouchiness
  • moodiness

Behavioral signs of anxiety

These may include:

  • changes in eating habits
  • frequent seeking of approval and reassurance from adults
  • frequent meltdowns or tantrums
  • nightmares and fears around bedtime
  • refusals to go to daycare or preschool
  • repetitive behaviors
  • rigidity
  • social withdrawal (like avoiding social time with peers)

Anxiety at age 1

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety can be an early sign of anxiety in young toddlers. Crying, clinginess, and tantrums are hallmarks of separation anxiety.

However, this may also just be a typical stage of development. Separation anxiety may peak at 18 months old, though it can continue well into your child’s preschool years.

Bedtime fears

Toddlers at this age may feel anxious before and during bedtime. Many are afraid of being apart from their parents while sleeping. It’s common to fear the dark at this age, too.

Stranger anxiety

No matter how friendly a new person may be, your child may react to a stranger’s face by crying and clinging to you. Stranger anxiety tends to be strongest in infancy, but it’s common at age 1, too.

Anxiety at age 2

Separation anxiety

Toddlers at this age have a deepened understanding of distance and time, and they’re now aware that you’re doing something without them when you’re not together.

Fear of new things and the unknown

It’s not uncommon for 2-year-olds to fear anything new — even mundane, everyday items and events like hearing the lawnmower or going to a new grocery store.

Your child may fear monsters under the bed, dogs or other animals, and loud sounds (like the flush of a toilet or the sound of a hand dryer in a public bathroom).

Social anxiety

Almost all 2-year-olds will have the occasional bout of shyness or even social anxiety when meeting someone new or spending time with peers, particularly in a new or unfamiliar setting.

Your child may feel insecure and cling to you or cry from the feelings of uncertainty and anxiety they feel.

Anxiety at age 3

Anxiety about preschool

Your 3-year-old may plead with you to not make them go to preschool, or they might refuse to go. They may say they have a headache or stomachache — both symptoms of anxiety in children — or cry and throw a tantrum when you say goodbye.

This could be separation anxiety or fear of something else, such as being teased or excluded at school.

Phobias and fears

Your child may be scared of certain items or situations, such as riding on the bus or the neighbor’s dog. At 3 years old, many children have anxiety around animals, darkness, storms, and other things they’re uncertain about or have had previous scary experiences with.

Imagination-induced anxiety

At age 3, children often have incredible imaginations. Your child may fear monsters, ghosts, and other figures from their imagination.

It can be hard for children of this age to tell what’s real and what’s make-believe, so they may fear characters they’ve seen on television or in books who appear scary.

While all toddlers will likely experience anxiety at some point, some children are more anxious than others.

Some may pick up on the anxious behavior of others and model that behavior. Others may develop anxiety after new or stressful life events, including:

  • moving or going to preschool
  • living in a home with a lot of tension or fighting
  • experiencing the death of a close family member or friend
  • experiencing illness or injury

If your toddler has an anxiety disorder, several factors may play a role in the cause, including:

  • Brain chemistry. Brain chemicals — known as neurotransmitters — may be unbalanced.
  • Genetics. A family history of anxiety disorders can make your child more susceptible to anxiety.
  • Learned behaviors. Growing up in a family where caregivers or siblings are anxious can teach a younger child to respond with anxiety more often.
  • Neurodevelopmental conditions. Autistic children and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to develop anxiety disorders, according to 2018 research.

If your toddler has anxiety or you suspect they have an anxiety disorder, you might be able to help ease their worries and fears. Some ideas include:

Speaking with your child’s pediatrician

The pediatrician may refer you to a mental health professional who specializes in toddler mental health. This can help support your child in learning effective coping strategies.

Talking about feelings

You can be a safe person for your child to share all of their fears and worries with. Listen to them, validate their feelings, and let them know you love and accept them as they are.

A loving, supportive relationship with you can help your child build their inner strength.

Giving your child encouragement

You can help your child face and confront what they’re afraid of (unless it’s unsafe!). You can also support them in taking small, positive steps forward with your support and guidance.

Research from 2016 backs this up — while too much or too little encouragement has been found to cause anxious toddlers to withdraw, moderate encouragement helped reduce some separation anxiety.

Having patience

It may take some time to figure out the most effective ways to help your toddler manage their anxiety. Remember to give yourself and your child lots of grace and patience during the process.

Preparing your child for new situations

You may want to prepare your child ahead of time before entering situations or meeting people you know make them anxious.

You can do this by giving them as many details as you can. Encourage them to bring along a favorite toy or security blanket. Give your child time to adjust to new situations, settings, and people, even if that means they spend time on your lap getting used to everything.

If your toddler has anxiety, you’re not alone. In-person and online resources can help you manage the condition with your child, including: