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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

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ASK MOM: Toddler has anxiety, mom at wit’s end

Drawing by Suzanne Johnson

THE PROBLEM: My three-year old daughter has been diagnosed with anxiety. Her doctor says he is seeing anxiety and depression show up in earlier years than ever before. Why is this? We do everything we can to make her feel safe. My husband and I tell her we love her all the time, we let her choose the things she likes (within reason), and we don’t let her watch scary shows. Anytime she’s upset, we try and soothe her and talk her through it, as best as one can with a three-year-old. Her anxiety shows up in temper tantrums and fearful crying, so we’re constantly feeling on thin ice with her, anticipating what might upset her and trying to avoid it. She’s afraid to be alone in her room, so she sleeps with us, which doesn’t make for the best night’s sleep for any of us. Help!

MARY SAYS: From what you describe, your daughter has been put in the position of running your household, which appears to be causing her anxiety. You are encouraging her to weigh in on many of the decisions in your home—including where she sleeps—and if there is a difference of opinion, you’re open to negotiation.

I applaud you for respecting your daughter as an individual, but by allowing her to make so many decisions, you’ve removed the one safeguard that will truly give her an abiding sense of ease—knowing that somebody much older and more experienced is in charge.

If you are unable to reign this in, your daughter’s unhappiness will begin to dominate your environment to the point where nobody is comfortable in your home.

You and your husband clearly love your daughter and want what’s best for her. As adults, we demonstrate that to each other by listening, accommodating, and collaborating. But toddlers need something else. They need firm boundaries, schedules, and rules, so their small world feels safe and consistent on a day-to-day basis. Only then do they feel confident enough to venture out and explore, unencumbered by the fear that something bad will happen to them and they won’t know what to do.

If you truly want to change this dynamic, you will need to say ‘no’ more often, develop routines that are non-negotiable, and stop trying to persuade your daughter to do what you feel is best for her. In other words, until she is older, make most (and sometimes all) of her decisions. As an occasional treat, let her choose an outfit or what cereal she wants for breakfast, but even then, two choices are plenty.

When you create a consistent, dependable place for your daughter to experience toddlerhood, she will mature to a point where she can make age-appropriate decisions on her own.

ERIKA SAYS: Hey Mama, you’re doing a fantastic job despite what you’re telling yourself, but I can understand how your daughter’s discomfort weighs on your heart. While figuring out why she is fearful is important, I think shifting your focus to teaching her how to manage her anxiety would be the best place to start. Once you’ve taught her some basic coping skills, you can circle back around and figure out the root cause of her distress.

Your daughter’s responses may simply be that she is a sensitive three-year-old developing cognitively and emotionally in a way that’s normal for her. While she may grow out of it, if you start now, she’ll be equipped with tools to help her manage and self-regulate no matter what.

Don’t not do things just because they may make her anxious. Listen, I get it! I’ve avoided certain situations with my son just to save myself the agony of dealing with his tantrums. But here’s the raw truth: you’re not doing your daughter any favors. I learned the hard way that by not doing things that made my son uncomfortable, I was teaching him unhealthy ways to cope. I was also teaching him that if he threw a fit, I would whisk him out of it.

In the short term, ‘saving’ your daughter might help, but in the long run, it will only reinforce her anxiety. Instead, build your daughter’s confidence by validating her feelings, expressing empathy, and being firm.

Let’s say she crawls into your bed at night, saying she’s scared. Tell her you understand how she feels and it’s okay to be afraid sometimes. Walk her back to bed, tuck her in, and let her know you think she’s brave, courageous, and, most of all, safe. I like to remind my son that I’m right across the hall from him, and that he’s not alone. As I validate my son’s feelings, I am also demonstrating that I’m confident he can manage on his own. You may have to do this a couple of times a night for a while, but as time goes on, your daughter will stay put.

Be mindful of how you handle situations that arise in your life, as children model how we cope with our own stresses. Show your daughter how to manage her ‘big’ feelings by taking deep breaths to regain control and allowing her space to express her fears as best she can.

When my son was your daughter’s age, I would make him count to three, take a deep breath, and blow it out as hard as he could. When he blew out, I would tell him to imagine he was blowing his bad feelings away. This simple exercise would distract him from whatever tantrum he was in and help him regulate his emotions. Once he settled down, we would talk about what upset him and how he could handle it better if it were to happen again.

Put a routine in place if you don’t already have one; children thrive when they have a basic idea of how their day will go. When something comes up that disrupts your daughter’s routine, give her as much information as you can about it. To the best of your ability, don’t leave anything open-ended, as fear of the unknown will most likely trigger her anxiety.

While you continue working with her pediatrician, begin teaching her the tools she needs. Your daughter’s anxiety is not a result of anything you’ve done wrong. If you remain consistent, you will soon see her flourish through any obstacle she encounters.

ASK MOM offers parents two perspectives on today’s child-rearing issues—one from a mom with grown children (Mary), the other from a mom raising a small child (Erika). If you’re looking for creative solutions, or your mom isn’t around to ask, drop in! 

If you have a question for Mary and Erika, we’d love to hear from you! askmomyourquestion@gmail.com

Read more ASK MOM advice.

Mary FollinMary Follin is author of the award-winning children’s book ETHYR and Teach Your Child to Read™, an online phonics program for children ages 3-6. She is mom to two grown kids. Follow Mary on Instagram at @advice_mom.

Erika Guerrero is a freelance hair and makeup artist, Erika K. Beauty, single-mama to one amazing boy, and author of She’s Not Shaken, a blog offering hope and encouragement to women in all walks of life.

Suzanne Johnson, mom of five children and grandma of six, is an illustrator, book cover designer, and author of Realms of Edenocht.

 

 

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