Sleepovers are part of the childhood experience. It’s when children forge lasting memories with friends, classmates, and family members like cousins and grandparents. If the sleepover is at the home of an adult you trust, it can be where your child experiences first tastes of freedom in a safe, supportive environment.
When I was a child, a sleepover with one friend or a slumber party with a gaggle of friends was a rite of passage. It was where I could push boundaries of etiquette without repercussion, where I could figure out interpersonal skills with kids I didn’t know so well and where some acquaintances could become good friends simply because I got to know them outside the pressures of school. Forty years later, I still remember the 13 pancakes I ate in a contest at a slumber party and the freakish ghost stories we shared that kept us from falling asleep until dawn.
Sleepovers are where I developed a taste of being away from home, where I learned flexibility, boundaries with someone else’s parents, and where I was forced to deal with situations outside my comfort zone. I loved sleepovers especially the lazy summer ones where I could disappear for days at a time in someone else’s house.
For many kids, sleepovers act as that first step to leaving the nest. It’s an early taste of independence. It’s also extremely important for a child’s emotional development, according to Maureen Monaghan, PhD, clinical and pediatric psychologist with the Children’s National Medical Center.
When kids are away from home, they have to face their fears, separation anxiety, uncertainty and work through it. The act of taking ownership of and working through that fear is what builds confidence in children.
It’s also a proving ground for kids who’d like to go to sleepaway camp some time down the road.
A well-planned sleepover with someone you trust can help kids grow in a safe, supportive environment. Your child’s ability to successfully navigate sleepovers can determine his willingness to leave home. In a way, it’s preparing your child to leave the nest.
If your child doesn’t have much experience with sleepovers or if your child doesn’t relish them much, here’s what you can do to make them work.
Start with people you and your child know well and trust.
Start by sending your child to their grandparents’, to an aunt and uncle’s, or to a friend’s house for a sleepover: someplace with an adult they trust but where they get to be away and have to fall asleep without their usual bedtime ritual.
Talk with your child about the sleepover.
Use the talk to work through any of your child’s worries. Nighttime, right before bed is when your child is tired and his imagination can get out of control. Talk about his worries, fears, and concerns. Address them. If your child has any boogeymen, talking about them can ease anxiety and reduce fears.
Develop a plan with your child, one that covers emergencies and what if’s.
Setting a contingency plan, or mapping out the progression of events at the sleepover will allay fears and worries. Set up an emergency contingency plan with your child, in case there’s an emergency.
Develop a checklist for your child, especially if he feels nervous.
You should obviously address any medical needs like medication, a special diet or potential anxiety, and it’s important to sit down and talk about what to expect, all the issues. You should always acknowledge the possibility of homesickness; tell your child if you experienced it and share your own stories.
Homesickness is normal and it doesn’t only happen with kids; it happens with the parents too. Your child’s ability to deal with his own homesickness is what can be empowering as an experience. But you as the parent must deal with your own separation anxiety when your child leaves. Ask your child what concerns her about her first overnight. Ask, listen, and figure out what the concerns are.” Ease your child into the transition by telling them to call if they feel uncomfortable, and that it’s okay either way if they want to go home or stay until the morning. You’re giving them power in that moment to work through the anxiety and make a choice that’s good for them.
Inform without control.
If you have important information to share with the parent, do it in a clear, direct manner. Do it without hysterics, fanfare, and anxiety. This is your child. These are her limitations, her health issues, her allergies. Be respectful and polite. Set up a contingency plan with the parent, what happens if there’s an emergency? What happens if homesickness becomes severe? Then, as long as you feel confident with the parent, back off and have a little trust. If the hosting parent is experienced and savvy, she will put your mind at rest. As A good parent will put herself in your position and make you feel comfortable. As Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D., a parenting psychologist in Maui, Hawaii says, when she hosts a sleepover “When I’m hosting, I put it all out there. I say, ‘We have no guns, we have no dog, we have no pool. We are going to watch this cartoon, eat pizza, and go to bed.'”
Address your own fears and insecurities.
It’s natural to experience the tug of apron strings when your little one goes off to a sleepover. After all, you miss him, you worry if he’ll be happy, over his safety. Buut if you’ve done your homework well, you shouldn’t worry. In fact, you should use this sleepover as a personal recovery opportunity. Use it as an opportunity to rekindle a spark with your spouse, especially if you don’t have other children at home.
If of course, you’re having anxiety, you need to rein in those insecurities and worries. Not only is it bad for you. Your child won’t want to leave home if he or she worries that you’re not okay.