Q&A: nervous toddler

Kathy writes:

"My 23 month old has started exhibiting some nervous behavior - nailbiting and blinking a lot - for the past 2 weeks. When I first saw my son biting his nails, I asked him to stop and he seemed even more obsessed so I've decided to ignore it for the time being. Then, the blinking started. At first I thought he was getting pink eye or allergies or was tired but he's been doing it for a week now without other symptoms and when he doesn't seem tired.

I didn't attribute this to nervous behavior (more like a "I can bite my nails and blink hard so that's what I'm going to do" type of behavior). But his day care provider suggested that it may be a result of inner turmoil or anxiety. Perhaps he has some night terrors or other thoughts that he isn't able to understand or vocalize. This made me think about the other phases he's gone through recently. For a couple of weeks in January, he was obsessed (not in a good way) with his shadow. It was so bad at one point that he would scream if we turned on the light in the morning. He went through a 4 week phase where he REFUSED to take off his clothes and was especially afraid of his penis. He went from loving bath time to freaking out if we even mentioned it. He'd even get upset if we took off his socks. In both cases, we ignored it as much as we could and slowly, gently pushed him to get over it... after all we need light when the fool is waking us up at 5am in January and he needs regular diaper changing which requires that we take off at least his pants.

Is this one big phase that is manifesting itself in different outward behaviors? Or is this just a tumultuous time in a kid's life and I should expect this phase to end and another one to start? He doesn't have a lovie. Would it help to get him one and how do I get him attached to it? Are these normal toddler behaviors that aren't associated with any type of anxiety? How do I help him deal with or get over something if I don't know what it is?

Sorry for the long email and the many questions but I'm sort of at a loss for where to start. The nail biting and blinking are a little annoying but not worrisome. I do worry that he may be struggling with something that is scary to him and I don't know how to help him."

This does all sound very scary, for him and for you. I don't think it's a sign of a nervous personality, particularly, but think it's probably part of the sometimes-huge anxiety phase many kids go through right around the two year age.

For a lot of kids, that manifests itself as a separation anxiety stage, and they get very attached to one parent of the other, and don't necessarily want to go outside. They may stop wanting to go to daycare, or see people they'd previously been happy seeing (like grandparents, which can cause hurt feelings). they may really act out when the preferred person isn't there, or isn't interacting with them every single second, etc.

I'm not sure exactly what development is going on at that point, but it seems to be another stage in the idea that they are separate from other people. And I'm betting that this is a lot of what's going on with your son. It seems like lots of this has to do with his body, and his body in relation to the rest of the world. So it may be that this is just how he's manifesting the anxiety of this stage in particular.

Now, the problem is that I really don't know how you can ease this stage for him. Mostly the anxiety phase just passes, but I think maybe reading some books about scary things (all the books about monsters, for example) might help him work out some of the fears he's having.

Did anyone else have a kid who went through a scared, anxious phase for a longish time? How did you deal with it? My kids just seemed to be very attracted to talking about scary things (monsters! dragons! allligators!) around that age so maybe we were working on it without realizing it. Does anyone have any good ideas for helping ids work out fears?