Are Fearful Toddlers at Risk for Anxiety Issues?

Most young children experience anxiety or fear in uncomfortable situations. Almost all kindergartners are a little apprehensive on their first day of school. But Kristin Buss, of Penn State University, wanted to see if these fearful behaviors were a precursor for future anxiety issues. She said, “The exact mechanisms by which individual differences in fearful behavior develop into anxiety symptoms are still largely unknown; so it remains unclear which fearful children are at particular risk and why.” Her study was based on answering several questions, one of which was, “Is it the intensity with which children experience fear or how children express fear across different situation that predicts risk?”

To find out, Buss conducted a study that followed 111 two year olds for several years, assessing their levels of fear and anxiety, through the first few months of their kindergarten experience. At each assessment, the mothers were present with their children. Buss used tools to measure anxiety at various episodes designed to elicit either high or low withdrawal and fear responses. The episodes consisted of a risk room, puppet shows, clown interactions and stranger experiences, with an equal number of boys and girls participating in each of the 12 randomly assigned episodes. Buss relied on preschool and toddler versions of the Laboratory Temperament Assessment Battery, along with other procedures, to collect her data. Buss assessed the children again at ages three and four, using a mailed questionnaire. The parents were asked to complete an additional assessment when the children entered kindergarten. The data suggests that anxious behaviors may develop not as a result of fearful episodes, but the context in which children experience them. Buss said, “Results supported the hypothesis that elevated anxious behaviors in preschool and kindergarten were predicted by a dysregulated fear profile characterized by high fear in low-threat contexts when children were age 2 and that this was true over and above the effects of general level of fear or inhibition.” She hopes these findings will help children who may be at risk for anxiety issues. She concluded, “These findings have implications for the methods used to identify fearful children who may be at risk for developing anxiety-related problems.”

Buss, Kristin A. “Which Fearful Toddlers Should We Worry About? Context, Fear Regulation, and Anxiety Risk.” Developmental Psychology 47.3 (2011): 804-19. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Trevor


    August 7th, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    Yes all children are anxious while in a new environment or are around strangers. But one thing I never thought about but is certainly true is that not all children experience the same levels of anxiety. It’s good that they conducted a study in this regard as it may help us identify the children who may grow up to have anxiety issues.

    The earlier such a problem is identified the better it can be turned around and will eventually benefit the child more as he or she steps into adulthood.

  • Alvin J. Holden

    Alvin J. Holden

    August 7th, 2011 at 1:30 PM

    Surely fear is natural for a 2 year old? If you’ve only been on the planet for twenty four months then you’ve got a great big world to explore filled with new experiences, people and sights. Apprehensiveness is to be expected in new situations. Heck, we feel like that as grownups, never mind toddlers.

  • josh


    August 7th, 2011 at 7:12 PM

    ^^alvin:they didn’t just see if the two year olds are anxious. they studied the intensity of their anxiety and weighed how anxious each one was with respect to all others. so they were able to get relative levels of anxiety. this seems like a good enough way to see things.

  • Jason a

    Jason a

    August 8th, 2011 at 4:37 AM

    What should a toddler fear that cannot be soothed over and help him forget about it by a parent?

    If this is something that they are going to carry around with them until adulthood, then maybe there are some other things going on at home that would be causing an increase in unreasonable fears like this.

  • charlie


    August 8th, 2011 at 8:20 AM

    babies may react differently to the same thing.but I dont think this is a reflection of them becoming anxious adults later on in is after all a developmental stage and things can change from there.

  • EE


    August 8th, 2011 at 8:31 PM

    Excessive fear can set into a toddler due to various reasons-violent atmosphere at home,harsh sounds,and many others. And these things can certainly play a role when the child grows up and still make him fearful or anxious.

  • Kaye Sheen

    Kaye Sheen

    August 9th, 2011 at 10:24 PM

    I really don’t understand the need to identify in a two year old the possibility of anxiety issues in the future.

    Are we reading too much into children’s behavior these days instead of letting kids be kids and the chips (off the old block) to fall where they may?

  • Cherie Willard

    Cherie Willard

    August 9th, 2011 at 11:56 PM

    Speaking as a mother, if you told me my child may be at risk for that as they got older I’d be watching them like a hawk for the slightest sign of it.

    The danger of non-professionals like myself seeing something that is more a product of my own anxiety than a reality must be very high there.

  • Trixie Whyte

    Trixie Whyte

    August 13th, 2011 at 7:38 PM

    Short answer: No.

    Long answer: No. All kids don’t like their first day of school and that’s how it is. What is actually happening to them is a brand new experience and probably the largest change they have undergone in their short lives. Being in a new environment without your parents close by is just something that happens throughout life that you need to get used to from an early age.

  • Stanley Billings

    Stanley Billings

    August 13th, 2011 at 8:35 PM

    @Trixie–That is how it is but the point is that depending on how they act, they can tell if the children are going to have anxiety issues later on.

    Not all the children have such a reaction, hence their ability to differentiate between the preschoolers that may well face anxiety problems as they get older.

  • Christina Randolph

    Christina Randolph

    August 13th, 2011 at 9:13 PM

    @Alvin- True, many little children fear everything unusual and yet I know in my own extended family some of our tots are completely fearless to the point that we’d call it recklessness if they were old enough to be capable of fathoming that!

    Even at such a tender age there are children who already demonstrate that they will become the nervous types. It makes you wonder how much weight to put on either side of the nature vs. nurture balance.

  • Jane Stark

    Jane Stark

    August 14th, 2011 at 3:32 PM

    Some parents can’t even step out the room of their youngsters without the child breaking down and crying. One of my nieces behaved like that until she was almost eight years old while her parents could hardly get a wave goodbye out of her little brother who was happy to be left with whoever was babysitting that day.

    I think if they had known she would be like that ahead of time they would have been happy to avail themselves of any tools or techniques that could have helped. It was very stressful for them too.

  • melanie grimes

    melanie grimes

    August 14th, 2011 at 3:44 PM

    Clowns are not fun for very small children. Didn’t the researchers read about a survey they took at a children’s hospital? It was almost unanimous in the fact that kids do not like clowns as much as we think they do. (Or maybe they did read it.)

    Adults like the idea of them more than the children do because we know it’s just a guy in face paint and big shoes. All the little ones see is a big white-faced monster coming at them.

    I hated clowns when I was small and still do. They give me the creeps.

  • Nichola Jones

    Nichola Jones

    August 14th, 2011 at 8:52 PM

    @melanie: I read that survey you’re referring to a while back. Something about the completely distorted face of a clown being completely different from the normal faces that a child is used to, and it being completely alien to them. That’s what terrifies them.

    When they aren’t old enough to have explained to them what a clown really is and for them to comprehend it, you should keep them away from them. Otherwise all you’re doing is scaring the living daylights out of your child and that’s not exactly good parenting.

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