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Toddlers and Stressful Situations

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


It wasn’t very long ago – I’m not that old and this was within my lifetime – that doctors thought children younger than three aren’t affected by disruptive events and don’t remember them anyway. Right up until the 1960s, it was common practice for parents of hospitalized babies and toddlers to be asked to stay away and not visit their children at all. Doctors and hospital staff thought that parents just got in the way and that the children wouldn’t suffer any long-term effects of what was really abandonment.

We’ve wised up. Parents are now allowed to room-in with hospitalized children or certainly are allowed to visit pretty much as often as they can. But in many ways we’re still in the Dark Ages when it comes to infants and toddlers. We still imagine that events we’d recognize as traumatic for older children don’t much matter to babies.

This just isn’t so. We now know that infants and toddlers are indeed affected by frightening events, like a fire or a car crash, the prolonged absence of a parent because of work or illness, incidents of domestic violence, parents’ separation or divorce, and the death of someone near and dear to them. Studies using brain imaging and tracking of stress hormones and heart rate demonstrate that the youngest children are just as deeply affected by stressful events as older children are, with the added stress that they cannot understand what’s going on, can’t talk it over with anyone, and have no idea how the future will be.

Studies as part of the Adverse Childhood Experiences project have demonstrated that childhood stress has long-term effects on a person’s health and life success. Other studies have suggested that early stress interferes with secure attachment and even with brain development. We expect two- and three-year-olds to act out in response to stress. It shouldn’t be so surprising that even babies’ behavior may be affected by traumatic events.

Of course, bad things do happen to good people and no one can keep stressful events away. There’s no way we can protect our children (or ourselves) from trauma. But there are some things we can do to reduce the stress load on little children.

  1. Starting now, be there for your baby. Establishing a close, supportive relationship with both parents and with other local adults, like a grandparent, provides your child with insurance against trauma later. The time to become one of the people your child counts on in times of trouble is right now.
  2. Starting now, be trustworthy to your baby. Tell your child when something is going to happen that he might find scary, like going to the doctor or being left with a babysitter. Even though your child is too young to understand what you’re saying, he will understand your intent. When you leave your child, say good-bye. Don’t sneak out.
  3. Permit your baby to have a security object, if she likes. Many toddlers become attached to a blanket or stuffed toy and need to have it with them everywhere. Fine. Don’t get in the way of this or be embarrassed by the ragged, dirty appearance of this best friend. Let your child find comfort where she can.
  4. In the middle of a scary event, stay as calm as you can and let your baby know you’re there to keep him safe. Your quiet, soothing presence can reduce your child’s stress and help him to know he’s not alone.
  5. After a trauma, expect your child to react. Watch for sleeplessness, fussiness, rage, and disruptions in eating. Notice if your baby seems to fall into depression. These reactions are possible and can become serious issues. Your baby’s mental health is important, so get help if you think help is needed.

Most of all, remember that your child is a real person, no matter how young she is. Even tiny children are aware of what’s going on and are affected by it. While I hope nothing traumatic ever happens to your family, I also hope you’re there for your even your youngest children if something ever does.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.


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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.