Fear and anger in toddlers

It’s not always easy for adults to tell the difference between fear and anger, and to have control over their emotions, and that difficulty is magnified in toddlers, who have so many of the same great big feelings, but without a lot of the tools adults use to process their feelings. It’s parents’ and caregivers’ jobs to help children discover and use those tools to sort through their frustrating and confusing emotions, but it isn’t always easy to do. For one thing, it isn’t always easy to tell what a toddler is feeling. Anger and fear especially can be hard to tell apart or deal with separately in toddlers.

When fear looks like anger

Anxiety and fear are tricky emotions because they can be expressed in many different ways. While it’s common for toddlers who are afraid or anxious to become clingy or quiet, it’s also common for young children to respond to anxiety or fear by lashing out, which is generally thought of as a way of expressing anger. This means that parents and caregivers often respond to a toddler who lashes out, whether it’s by yelling, by lashing out physically against other children or adults, or throwing a tantrum, by offering strategies for working through anger, even though anger isn’t always the feeling that prompts the aggressive response.

When anger and fear go together

One reason anger and fear aren’t always easy to tell apart is that they often go together. Toddlers who are afraid, and can’t express that fear in a way their parents or caregivers understand, often start to get frustrated and angry. Toddlers who are angry and lashing out are often overwhelmed by their own feelings, which they often don’t know how to process yet, which can be scary.

Addressing anger and fear in toddlers

With young toddlers Baby’s age, there are a few strategies that can be helpful whether it’s anger or fear you’re dealing with if they lash out.

  • Before the fact: Talking to Baby about emotions like anger and fear in different contexts before they get upset is a great way to start them thinking about different feelings. You can do this by talking about characters’ feelings in story books (“Look, Little Bear is crying. How do you think he feels right now?”), by talking to them about your feelings, and modeling healthy ways to cope with them for them (“I’m a little upset with your auntie right now, so I’m going to sit back and take some deep breaths and figure out how I want to talk to her about it.”) or by speculating about the feelings of others (“Look, her hands are full, she looks frustrated. Let’s hold the door for her and see if that helps.”). This way, when Baby is the one who’s mad or sad or frustrated, they will know what you mean when you identify it with them, and they might have some ideas about ways to manage it.
  • Offer other outlets: Lashing out, whether it’s by hitting, yelling, pushing or biting, is the kind of behavior that it’s important for caregivers to work with toddlers to avoid, but it’s much easier to replace one behavior with another than to teach a toddler to just not do something. Toddlers often don’t respond well to the classic “punch a pillow” alternative, but options like squeezing a squishy ball instead of hitting, running a certain distance instead of throwing a tantrum, putting on a loud song and dancing it out, or drawing a picture of what they're feeling sometimes work, depending on the toddler, and their temperament. It may take a little while to figure out the right replacement behavior, but finding an outlet is an important tool that will help them dealing with feelings as they grow.
  • Overcompensate: It’s important to make sure toddlers get lots of attention when they’re not upset or lashing out, so that they don’t learn that tantrums are the best way to get other people’s attention.
  • Get to the bottom of it: Figuring out why a toddler is upset isn’t a guaranteed way to calm them down, but it can definitely help, and it can help avoid similar situations in the future. More than that, though, it helps to build trust with your toddler, and helps them feel more confident in their relationship with you every time.

  • K.A. Buss, A.J. Keel “Comparison of sadness, anger, fear facial expressions when toddlers look at their mothers.” Child Development. 75(6): 1761-73. Web. Nov-Dec 2004.
  • Mary Louise Hemmeter. “Handling Challenging Behaviors in Child Care: Aggression and Anger in Young Children.” Illinois Early Learning Project. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, February 2003. Web.
  • Caroline Miller. “How Anxiety Leads to Disruptive Behavior.” Child Mind Institute. Child Mind Institute Inc. Web.
  • “Ten signs your child needs help controlling their anger.” Michigan State University Extension. Michigan State University, July 17 2015. Web.
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