10 Ways To Help A Child Warm Up To Sleepovers

Dear Susan,

My 12-year-old daughter has never been able to do sleepovers. Her friends spend the night at each other's houses and always invite her, but she won't go because she says she gets too homesick. She has tried going to sleepover birthday parties twice, but both times she called and asked me to pick her up. Is there something I can do to convince her to try again? She's fine having girls spend the night at our house, but I feel bad that she's missing out on so much fun at other girls' sleepover parties.


Dear Mom,

There are some children who simply dread the thought of a night away from home -- no matter how tempting those late movie nights or pillow fights may be. But quality time spent together outside of school can do a lot to enhance friendships. Here are ten tips for helping your daughter gain the confidence to try a sleepover when she's ready.

Begin by letting your daughter know that there isn't anything wrong with her if she doesn't want to go on a sleepover. The young girls I've worked with who struggle with this issue tend to feel embarrassed and ashamed -- as if they're somehow deficient because they're uncomfortable sleeping at someone else's house. Reassure your daughter that if she just isn't ready, you're not going to force the issue.

If she indicates that she wishes she could do sleepovers but is too anxious, ask if she'd like you to help her look at some different ideas that might ease her worries. Making sure she feels the two of you are on the same team will help her be receptive to trying something new.

Don't send her to a sleepover party where, in addition to missing you, she has to deal with the drama and complexities of a group of 12-year-old girls. Let her start with something more low-key -- for instance, a night with one friend that doesn't revolve around a birthday or special event.

If you have close relatives in town, consider letting your daughter stay the night with them as practice. In some cases, it can be helpful if you stay in the house as well, to help her get used to sleeping away from home. But your goal, of course, will be to help her be away from you for a night -- which might be easier on the familiar territory of a cousin or grandparent's house.

Help your daughter choose a friend whose house and routine feels comfortable to her. Think outside the box; while she may be particularly close to Jenny, if she's known Sarah -- and her parents -- since preschool, Sarah might be a better choice for testing the waters.

Build on success. Arrange for your daughter to only stay at her friend's house until bedtime, so she isn't worrying all evening about whether she'll be able to stay all night. If she decides to sleep there, that's fine -- but plan beforehand to pick her up by 10:00 or 11:00, so she doesn't feel like a night away from home is looming over her.

Make sure the parents of your daughter's friend will be home and available to help your daughter feel welcome and at ease, without pushing her to stay the night. The less concerned she is about disappointing them, her friend and you, the more able she'll be to relax and have fun -- which is the whole point.

Make sure your daughter knows that you love having her around. Some children sense that when they aren't home, their parents don't quite know what to do with themselves. Balance that by also making it clear that you're fine when she's off having fun with her friends, so she doesn't feel subtly obligated to “take care” of mom and/or dad.

Ask your daughter what might help her feel connected to you when she's not actually with you. Some kids like to have a photo to remind them of home; others might want to hear a parent's voice before climbing into bed. (Beware, though, that for many children, these things only create more homesick feelings.) When your daughter's ready to try staying AWAY all night, help her figure out the best balance for her.

Be prepared to pick her up at 2:00 in the morning if she can't sleep, or if she wakes up in a panic. I know some parents believe it's best to have a cut-off point -- say midnight -- after which a youngster has to stick it out; while that might work down the road, I would suggest that for the first few times, you let your daughter know that if she does try staying all night and can't make it, someone will be happy to come and get her. Knowing she has a backup plan if she genuinely panics will make it easier for her to give sleepovers another try.

Finally: Don't rush this process. While sleepovers can be lots of fun, they're not for everyone. Allow your daughter to be who she is, without pressuring her to do things she isn't ready for yet (even if they're things you loved as a child). Children who are more sensitive do have a harder time handling anxiety of any kind; the less your daughter fears your negative reaction or criticism, the more willing she'll be to truly address her fear of being away from you.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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