Listen: Parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson chats to Katrina Roe.
When school starts up for a new year, it’s not long before kids approach their mums or dads asking if they can have play dates and sleepovers with their newfound friends.
But for many parents, the sleepover tradition is a minefield: of too much sugar, not enough sleep, and cranky kids the next morning, along with concerns about what the kids will read, watch and play when they’re not sleeping in the middle of the night.
To help parents navigate sleepovers safely and successfully, parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson suggests a number of strategies.
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1 – The supervising parents should be clear about their plans.
Will the hosting parents be monitoring what the kids are eating, doing and viewing? Or will they be retreating to their room and ‘leaving the kids to it’? What are their values and expectations of the kids’ behaviour?
Find out if and how the parents will supervise. This may help you to decide whether you want to let your child go along and stay the night.
“If a parent plans to retreat to the bedroom and leave the kids to it, it may not be suitable,” Dr Coulson said. “If my child was going to a sleepover where the parents said ‘We’re not going to supervise the kids’, I’d probably give my child a phone and say ‘Give me a call or a text if you’ve got any concerns or troubles.”
2 – Agree on a ‘code’ with your kids in case of any problems.
If you work out an ‘exit plan’ with your children, it will give them a way out if something happens that they’re uncomfortable with, such as drinking or inappropriate viewing.
For example, you could teach your child to simply go to the bathroom, send you a text message and tell you that they’re feeling sick – which is code for ‘please come and get me’. Tell them they can do this at any time, even if it’s at 3am.
“We’ve got to prep our kids,” says Dr Coulson.
3 – Chat to the host parents before sleepover day.
Assuming that you know the host parents well – (and Dr Coulson suggests that you should if you’re allowing your child to sleep over) – then it’s worth chatting to them about any concerns. For example, you may like to check that:
- The kids won’t be watching movies or anything online beyond a certain rating
- There won’t be any screens after a certain time of night
- Older siblings won’t be sneaking in and inappropriately spending time with younger kids
“If you know the family well enough, you can have these conversations,” Dr Coulson said.
4 – It’s OK if you don’t want to let your child sleepover.
You may be comfortable for your child to stay for dinner and playing until a certain time of night, but not sleeping over. In this case, there’s nothing wrong with picking your child up. It’s more important to care for your child as you know best, than to worry about offending someone.
“We need to have the courage to say to other parents, ‘We’re not entirely comfortable and we’d like to pick our kids up at 9 or 10pm / We don’t do sleepovers’,” said Dr Coulson.
5 – Without being paranoid, be aware that there are risks.
Dr Coulson says that abuse, while not an everyday occurrence, is a reality. You’re not being paranoid by taking precautions, you’re simply being a loving, responsible parent.
“I’ve spoken and worked with families and individuals who’ve been significantly negatively affected because of the events of a sleepover, where there’s been some form of abuse occur…whether it’s one of the parents, or an older sibling who happens to be there,” Dr Coulson said. “They’re obviously exceptional cases but they happen far too often.”
6 – Build friendship with the parents of your child’s friends.
Despite the inconvenience, risks, and tiredness of kids the next day, sleepovers and playdates are a great way for your children to build friendships.
If you want to allow your child to experience the fun of a sleepover, but in a safe environment that you are comfortable with, your best bet is to spend time getting to know the family. You’ll most likely not only grow to trust the parents of your childrens’ classmates, but you’ll also get a new friendship of your own, too.