Tips for parents, teachers and caregivers – supporting toddlers

Supporting toddlers during and after COVID-19.

During a period of disruption, our feelings of safety can be undermined. Reassure children that you are looking forward to doing more things as it is safe to play outside, see our friends and go back and see our teachers.

Helping children feel safe takes time, patience and reassurance from the important adults in their lives. When children are scared, they also want to be with people who help them feel safe and they might worry when they are not together.

Children can become confused and fearful when changes happen and when they don’t understand the changes.

Take time to listen. Check in about their feelings, and acknowledge and normalise these. Reassure children that we can do things together that help us feel better.

How do children react, and what should I do?

All children are different and will show stress in different ways. When children show signs of stress it is common for children to revert to behaviours they have previously grown out of eg, sucking their thumb, wetting themselves, or becoming clingy.

How children react will depend on what’s changing in their daily lives, what they are hearing, how you are reacting, and the support and comfort you are able to provide.

The table below lists some common concerns or issues experienced by babies or toddlers, and describes how parents, caregivers or teachers can respond.

 Concern/issue

 Understand

Tips 

 

Has problems sleeping, doesn’t want to go to bed, won’t sleep alone and wakes up at night frequently.

 

 

 

When children are worried they want to be with people who help them feel safe and they worry when you are not together. If there are things they don’t understand bedtime is a time for remembering because we are not busy doing other things.  People often dream about things they fear and can be scared of going to sleep.

 

 

If there have been lots of changes and this is acceptable in your family, let your child sleep with you. This is OK. Let them know this is just for now. Have a bedtime routine such as a story, a prayer or cuddle time. Tell them the routine every day, so they know what to expect. Hold them and tell them that you are there and you are OK. Understand that your child is not being difficult on purpose. This might take time, but when they feel safer and they will sleep better.

 

 

 Concern/issue

 Understand

 Tips 

 

Worries something bad will happen to you or that you will get sick. (You might also have worries like this.)

 

Children who cannot yet speak or say how they feel might show their fear by clinging or crying. 

 

Goodbyes might remind your child of any separation where they got worried about something. 

 

Children’s bodies react to separations (stomach sinks, heart beats faster). Something inside says, “Oh no, I can’t lose her/him”. Your children are not trying to manipulate or control you. They are worried or scared. They might also get scared when other people (not just you) leave.  Goodbyes make them scared.

 

 

If you’re not in a position to always be with your child:

  • for brief separations (eg going to the supermarket) help your child by naming their feelings and linking them to what they are worried about. Let your child know you love them and that this goodbye is different –you’ll be back soon. ”You’re so worried, you don’t want me to go because last time you weren’t sure where I was. This is different and I’ll be right back.”
  • for longer separations tell them where you’re going, and why and when you’ll come back. When you come back, tell them you missed them, thought about them and did come back. You will need to say this over and over.

 

Has problems eating, eats too much or refuses food.

 

Stress affects your child in different ways, including their appetite. Eating healthy is important but focusing too much on eating can cause stress and tension in your relationship.

 

Relax. Usually, as your child’s level of stress goes down, their eating habits will return to normal. Don’t force your child to eat. Eat together and make meal times fun and relaxing. Keep healthy snacks around. Young children often eat on the go. If you are worried, or if your child loses a significant amount of weight, consult a doctor.

 

 

Is not able to do things they used to do (like use the potty) or does not talk like they used to.

 

Often when young children are stressed or scared, they temporarily lose abilities or skills they recently learned. This is the way young children tell us that they’re not okay and need our help. Losing an ability after children have gained it (like starting to wet the bed again) can make them feel ashamed or embarrassed. Caregivers should be understanding and supportive. Your child is not doing this on purpose.

 

 

Avoid criticism – it makes them worried that they’ll never learn.

Don’t force your child – it creates a power struggle. Instead of focusing on the ability (like not using the potty), help your child feel understood, accepted, loved and supported. As your child feels safer, they will recover the ability that was lost.

 

 Concern/issue

Understand

 Tips 

 

Is reckless, does dangerous things.


It might seem strange, but when children feel unsafe, they often behave in unsafe ways. It is one way of saying, “I need you. Show me I’m important by keeping me safe.”

 

Keep them safe. Calmly go and get them and hold them if necessary. Let them know that what they’re doing is unsafe, that they’re important and you wouldn’t want anything to happen to them. Show them other, more positive ways they can get your attention.

 

 

Scared by things that did not scare them before.

 

Young children believe their parents are all-powerful and can protect them from anything. This belief helps them feel safe. Because of what may be happening around them this belief may be damaged and without it the world is a scarier place. Take care to model being calm.

 

When your child is scared, talk to them about how you’ll keep them safe. Answer their questions, about what’s happening and what we are doing to be safe. If they talk about bugs or monsters, join them in chasing them out. “Go away bug, don’t bother my baby. I’m going to tell the bug boo and it will get scared and go away. Boo, boo.” Your child is too young to understand and recognise how you are protecting them, but remind yourself of the good things you are doing.

 

 

Seems hyper, can’t sit still and doesn’t pay attention to anything.

 

Fear can create nervous energy that stays in our bodies. Adults sometimes pace when worried.  Young children run, jump and fidget. When our minds are stuck on scary things, it’s hard to pay attention to other things. Some children are naturally active.

 

Help your child to recognise their feelings (fear, worry) and reassure your child that your family has a plan that’s keeping everyone safe and getting through after the lockdown. Help your child get rid of nervous energy – stretching, running, sports, breathing deep and slow.  Sit with them and do an activity you both enjoy – throwing a ball, reading books, playing, drawing. Even if they won’t stop running around, this helps. If your child is naturally active, focus on the positive. Think of all the energy they have to get things done and find activities that suit their needs.

 

 

Plays in unkind ways (shaking toys, throwing things away or scaring other children). Keeps talking about being sick or coughing

 

Young children often talk through play. Unkind or hurtful play can be their way of telling us how crazy things are and how they feel inside. When your child talks about what is happening, strong feelings might come up both for you and your child (fear, sadness, anger).

 

While it might be difficult for you, listen to your child when they talk about what they saw. As your child plays, notice the feelings they have and help them by naming feelings and being there to support them (hold and soothe them). If your child gets overly upset, spaces out or plays out an upsetting scene, help them calm down, feel safe and consider getting professional help.

 

 

 Concern/issue

 Understand

Tips 

 

Now very demanding and controlling. Seems stubborn, insisting that things be done their way.

 

Between the ages of 18 months to three years, young children often seem clingy or controlling. It can be annoying, but it is a normal part of growing up and helps them learn that they are important and can make things happen. When children feel unsafe, they might become more clingy and controlling than usual. This is one way of dealing with fears. They’re saying, “Things are so crazy I need control over something.”

 

Remember your child is not clingy, controlling or bad. This is normal, but might be worse right now because they feel unsafe with all the changes. Let your child have control over small things. Give children choices over what they wear or eat, games you play, stories you read. If they have control over small things, it can make them feel better. Balance giving them choices and control with giving them structure and routines. They will feel unsafe if they run the show. Cheer them on as they try new things. They can also feel more in control when they can put their shoes on, put a puzzle together, pour juice.

 

 

Has tantrums and is cranky. Yells a lot more than usual.

 

Even before the lockdown, your child might have had tantrums. They are a normal part of being little. It’s frustrating when you can’t do things and when you don’t have the words to say what you want or need. Now, with all the changes your child has a lot to be upset about (just like you) and might really need to cry and yell.

 

Let them know you understand how hard this is for them. “Things have changed. It’s been unsettling. We can’t do some of things we used to do or see (friends/family) and you’re mad, but things are changing everyday.” Tolerate tantrums more than you usually would and respond with love rather than discipline. You might not normally do this, but things are not normal. If they cry or yell, stay with them and let them know you are there for them. Reasonable limits should be set if tantrums become frequent or are extreme.

 

 

Hits you.

 

For children, hitting is a way of expressing anger. When children hit adults they feel unsafe.

 

It’s scary to be able to hit someone who’s supposed to protect you. Hitting can also come from seeing other people hit each other.

 

Each time your child hits, let them know that this is not OK. Hold their hands, so they can’t hit, and have them sit down.

 

Say something like, “It’s not OK to hit, it’s not safe. When you hit, you are going to need to sit down.” If your child is not old enough, give them the words to use or tell them what they need to do. Say, “Use your words. Say I want that toy.” Help them express anger in other ways, such as playing, talking and drawing. If you are having conflict with other adults, try to work it out in private, away from where your child can see or hear you. If needed, talk with a friend or professional about your feelings.

 

 

Concern/issue

Understand

 Tips 

 

Says, “Go away, I hate you!” Says, “This is all your fault.”

 

The real problem is the changes brought on by the pandemic and everything that is happening but your child is too little to fully understand that. When things go wrong, young children often get mad at their parents because they believe they should be able to stop the changes from happening. You are not to blame, but now is not the time to defend yourself. Your child needs you.

 

Remember what your child is going through. They don’t mean everything they say – they’re angry and dealing with so many difficult feelings. Support your child’s feeling of anger, but gently redirect the feelings towards the pandemic and the changes that are happening to keep everyone safe. “You are really mad. Lots of changes are happening. I’m mad too. I really wish they weren’t happening, but even mums can’t make pandemics not happen. It’s so hard for both of us.”

 

 

Doesn’t want to play or do anything. Seems to not really have any feelings (happy or sad).

 

Your child needs you. They might be feeling sad and overwhelmed. When children are stressed, some yell and others shut down. Both need their loved ones.

 

Sit by your child and keep them close. Let them know you care. If you can, give words to their feelings. Let them know it’s OK to feel sad, mad or worried. “It seems like you don’t want to do anything. I wonder if you are sad.  It’s OK to be sad. I will stay with you.” Try to do things with your child, anything they might like, such as reading a book, singing and playing together.

 

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