Understanding why toddlers might feel stressed, how to recognise the signs, and how to support them.

Wanting to do things for themselves, without always having the necessary skills or ability to say what they want, can cause toddlers to feel frustrated and stressed.

More often now pēpi will make their own choices about what to eat, play with and even wear! This stage of growing independence and self-discovery can sometimes end in tears. Compromise and negotiation are the key words for this time.

(Whakatipu booklet Te Kōhuri 1, page 20)

The tears might not just belong to the little person either. Parents can often feel additional stress as they adjust to their toddler’s increasing demand to be independent.

Why might toddlers feel stressed?

They’re experiencing some strong emotions and don’t yet have the language to say how they feel. Tantrums will often result as they struggle with too much emotion to handle and limited ability to control their feelings.

Adults might have unrealistic expectations of them, especially around eating, sleeping, sharing, and toileting. Sometimes toddlers are taken to places like cafés that aren’t kid friendly.

Some toddlers aren’t able to share in the ways the adults around them expect. Sharing takes a while to learn. It also depends on a child’s temperament, their development, and their role models.

Toddlers will need to ‘blow off steam’, so it’s important they get plenty of opportunity for vigorous play, preferably outside.

They’re mobile and curious and don’t understand that some things are just not available or suitable for them to touch.

They’re experiencing changes in family life and daily routines. Sometimes adults don’t realise just how upsetting events may be to a young child. These events could include the birth of a sibling, death or sickness in the family, moving to a big bed or a new house, starting childcare, parents fighting or separating, or mum’s boyfriend moving in.

Times of transition, like leaving the house to go to childcare or leaving childcare to go home, can also cause stress. Toddlers may be happy or focused on what they’re doing and not want to stop. Abrupt changes can be particularly stressful. A few minutes warning can be a respectful way to deal with changes. Adults can allow enough time so that they don’t get rushed.

Toddlers are yet to learn about other people’s points of view. At around this age toddlers are really just beginning to understand that other people have feelings that are different from their own. It’s a work in progress.

They want to do things for themselves but may have limited skills. At this time they’re learning to assert their independence and communicate their wants. However, they still need plenty of practice and learning.

Children can feel stressed if their needs are not being met and they think they’re not being heard. Children are usually pretty good at telling and showing what they need. Sometimes adults are not so good at hearing them.

What are the signs that a toddler might be stressed?

They may become more clingy than usual.

They may experience changes in sleep patterns. This might result in a toddler finding it harder to go to sleep and/or go back to sleep after waking up. They may have nightmares.

Sometimes a toddler may regress – or revert back to more babyish behaviour.

They could become quieter, or behave in a more challenging way than usual.

Here are some ways parents and whānau can support a toddler who is showing signs of stress:

  • Be alert to the signs – for example, behaviour changes.
  • Have appropriate expectations of their developmental stage.
  • Set and stick with daily routines so a toddler knows what to expect. If they can anticipate what will happen next, they are more likely to be ready to participate.
  • Stay firmly and gently consistent with their whānau limits and boundaries.
  • Give verbal reminders about impending changes, such as ‘We’ll need to pack up’ or ‘When dad finishes drying the dishes you can have your bath’. Using cues they can ‘see’ rather than words like ‘in 10 minutes’ works best at this age.
  • Think ahead so big changes don’t happen too close together – for example, not moving them from a cot to a big bed just before the new baby arrives – giving them time to adjust to changes.
  • Help them to learn names for their feelings – ‘I can see you’re feeling angry because you can’t …’
  • Plan daily activities to include vigorous play as well as quiet times.
  • Provide a small choice of activities and toys (2–3 is plenty), which gives them the opportunity to choose what they will explore and satisfy their curiosity.
  • Share books and stories with them about other kids coping with challenges and learning new skills – this is called ‘bibliotherapy’.
  • Help them feel they have some control over what happens by giving them choices – for example, ‘Red shorts or green shorts today?’
  • Take a toddler’s feelings seriously – avoid saying ‘Don’t be silly.’
  • Support them with love, warmth and patience as they learn about their emotions and how to control them.
  • Acknowledge and praise them for trying as well as for succeeding in learning new skills and behaving well.

Parents can also:

  • find ways to relieve their own stress
  • look for the funny side of things
  • try not to ‘sweat the small stuff’ whenever they can.

Assure parents that children never do things simply to annoy their parents, even if it feels like it sometimes. Children are merely learning to become more independent and assertive. The more skilled parents are at managing a toddler’s behaviour and becoming capable negotiators and mediators now, the more able the parents will be when the child reaches their teens. They will see in their older child the identical behaviours, just in a bigger body, including a whole range of ‘interesting’ language. So this toddler time can be used as a training time for whānau for the more turbulent years to come.

Helpful resources for whānau