“The Great Sleepover Debate” has raged among parents for years, and now the controversy has found a new home on TikTok.
Parents are dueling over whether sleepovers are healthy or harmful, explaining their choices, sometimes justifying their caution and often criticizing their detractors.
TikTok user @toriyav posted a video saying “My children will NOT be allowed to have sleepovers” and in another video on the topic wrote “you really never know what goes on behind closed doors.” Some commenters agreed, saying “I completely understand and back your choice.” Another said “u can’t control everything” and one wrote “sleepovers were some of my (favorite) childhood memories.”
On a video with the on-screen text “Why No Sleepovers,” TikTok user @bmcpher posted a news story about child sexual abuse with the caption “some things are more important than ‘fun.'” One commenter said “I don’t agree with sleepovers for the same reason,” while another noted, “just because that happened doesn’t mean it will happen.”
Parents resist sleepovers for a variety of reasons, including cultural differences and fears of abuse. But child development experts say sleepovers can be an important developmental step for children, helping them navigate independence, practice flexibility and gain exposure to different family cultures. Sleepovers may test the limits of some parents’ discomfort, but they are one useful way children can exercise separation from caregivers.
Experts say parents who feel sleepovers aren’t right for their family should consider alternative opportunities for their children to practice self-efficacy and adaptability.
“There’s a fine line between raising kids who understand things like good touch, bad touch, when to heed their spidey sense that something isn’t safe, how to call home for help, when to extricate themselves from a bad situation and … raising kids who are afraid to go out in the world,” said Phyllis Fagell, a school counselor and author of “Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond – and How Parents Can Help.”
Fagell said U.S. parenting culture has grown increasingly over-protective. If a parent is resistant or hesitant to sleepovers, especially at the home of someone the host knows and trusts, it’s important parents examine their motivations.
“As parents, I think if your decision not to have sleepovers comes from a place of fear, I would caution parents to pause and ask themselves, what is my anxiety?” she said.
Culture, abuse fears, disruption: Why some parents are ditching sleepovers
Fagell is American, has three kids, and all her children had sleepovers growing up.
“It’s something I’m familiar and comfortable with,” she said. “As a counselor who works in a K-8 school, I think it’s far more nuanced.”
Fagell said some parents come from cultures where sleepovers are not customary, so they feel unfamiliar and unnecessary. Some parents find sleepovers contribute to behavioral problems or family disruptions and simply aren’t worth the recovery time. Others worry their kids may be abused or exposed to abuse while sleeping at someone else’s home, a fear especially potent among parents who are survivors themselves. Parents of teens worry their children will make unhealthy or unsafe decisions.
The range of resistance shows parents are confronting a number of different anxieties when weighing whether to allow their child to sleep somewhere else. While some parental concerns are legitimate, experts say others may be a form of catastrophizing. Accommodating anxieties is not a healthy way to cope them and can trickle down to children in ways that may stunt their ability to tolerate discomfort themselves.
‘A rite of passage’
Mary Alvord, a psychologist and author of the “Resilience Builder Program for Children and Adolescents,” views sleepovers as a “rite of passage.”
“Sleepovers are helping kids work toward independence,” she said. “Developmentally that is crucial.”
Alvord said children who aren’t given opportunities to practice independence can develop separation anxiety, fears and even phobias when leaving their caregivers and entering new spaces.
Sleepovers are one way to teach cognitive mental flexibility, as children will inevitably experience things at a friend’s home that are different from their experiences in their own. A child who has cereal every morning may find at another kitchen table pancakes are standard fare.
Teach safety, minimize risk
It’s neither possible nor healthy for parents to try and eliminate all risks when it comes to the safety and well-being of their children.
“There’s not a world where there is 0% risk,” Alvord said. “So you minimize it. That, I think, is the job as parents.”
When approaching sleepovers, parents and children can start small – staying with a trusted grandparent and working their way up to a friend. Parents should know the family whose home their child is sleeping in, but children and their parents must also be able to tolerate some degree of uncertainty.
“Social risks are one type of risk,” Fagell said. “You want to make sure kids are alert, aware of their environment, that they’re heeding the signs inside their body, that they’re able to make good, safe, healthy decisions for themselves, but that they’re not afraid to put themselves out there to meet new people, to take risks, to try new things.”
Minimizing risk, experts say, means teaching kids their bodies are their own and that anxiety is the body’s way of communicating. A child can experience it when a friend’s older sibling starts watching something inappropriate on TV or when their peers start mixing juice boxes and vodka. It’s important to teach children that anxiety isn’t something to fear, but something to listen to.
Perhaps most importantly, Alvord said, is that children feel safe enough to disclose when something makes them uncomfortable.
“It’s about making sure kids know they can tell their parents anything,” she said.
A lesson in empathy and acceptance
Experts say parents who decide they are drawing a hard line with sleepovers need to validate their children’s feelings. Those children may feel excluded, frustrated or resentful.
“Validating doesn’t mean that you agree that they should get their way,” Fagell said. “It just means that you understand, and you empathize.”
Parents can engage in conversations about alternative ways to meet their child’s need, which can include things like a “sleepunder,” where a child stays at a friend’s late but eventually goes home to sleep, or a family camping trip with a family they know.
Fagellsaid children whose friends are not allowed to participate in sleepovers should be encouraged to practice acceptance and empathy.
“One way that parents can teach their kids to embrace differences and to be a good friend is to help their child understand that not everyone has the same cultural experience. Not everybody views sleepovers the same way. That doesn’t make that peer less than.” she said. “It’s an opportunity to really look for ways that you can include them, to keep them a part of the group, to not have them feeling left out.”
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