My toddler is afraid to sleep alone in her bed after seeing a spider.
DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD: Let’s look at what’s going on here in order to solve the problem. A toddler had the traumatic, scary experience of seeing a spider and now she is afraid more spiders will come get her when she goes to sleep.
MOLLY: This question came to us from a mom in Boston, Massachusetts. She added that she has been “checking the bed, laying with her daughter, comforting her but nothing seems to be working.” And now her daughter doesn’t want to nap alone or go to her bed at night. Is there anything else the parents can do?
DR. RUTHERFORD: I think what she is doing so far is great! I would have done just the same things, so her instincts are right on there.
Her daughter, however, isn’t completely “settled” by her Mom’s actions. That tells us the child continues to hold on to a fair amount of anxiety from the initial event of seeing the spider. It’s important to keep working with her about this so that it doesn’t stay with her for too long a period of time.
MOLLY: Since this was so traumatic for the child, is there anything more the mom can do?
DR. RUTHERFORD: I would suggest that the mom continue her ‘routine’ of checking for spiders and also ask her daughter to take an active role in the ritual. This will help to empower the child. Because she sleeps alone, she needs some ways to be able soothe her own anxieties as she moves forward.
Additionally, mom could imbue one of her stuffed animals with a special power to watch over the girl at night and prevent spiders from coming into the room. If we remember that characters in the dreams of children usually take the form of animals, this strategy makes more sense.
Mom should ceremoniously gift powers to the stuffed animal while the child watches. Then, she can either post the stuffed animal somewhere on the side of the bed to stand guard, or snuggle it into the child’s arms and assure her that the stuffed animal will keep her safe all night long.
MOLLY: Do you think there are any possible long term implications for the child?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Unresolved anxiety has a way of growing and becoming generalized anxiety, which can take over someone’s life. At this point in development, the trick is to keep the child’s emotion focused on the spider rather than allowing it to generalize to all insects and then to other things in life that seem daunting and unfamiliar. In psychology we call this “generalization of the trauma,” meaning it can latch onto more than just spiders.
It’s best to deal with new anxieties based in traumatic events right away so that the originating event doesn’t get lost from memory while leaving unexplained fear behind. This mom is at least half-way there!