Summer vacation is coming and this can mean overnight visits for your kids with relatives or friends. These opportunities can provide a much-needed respite for parents, and open wonderful new experiences for our children! Some parent-child preparation is in order to help keep your children safe and secure when they spend the night away from you.
As a parent, it's your first job to be sure that you know everyone who will be in the home where your child will be. Are there older siblings? Will the siblings' friends be staying as well? Older siblings, especially adolescents, can become emboldened in front of their friends and the possibility exists for inappropriate behavior. Whether it's telling nightmare-worthy horror stories or stealthily watching a child undress, teens have notoriously poor impulse control and an underdeveloped ability for high-level reasoning. Better for a family to host teens one night and younger kids on another.
Does Mom or Dad have a partner that you don't know? Contact the host parent and ask these questions respectfully. If you are not comfortable with the answers, your child needs to decline the invitation. By the same token, if you are a single parent and your child wants to host a sleepover, skip the overnight part of your own date night.
Parents should also know who will be sleeping where. While little kids often pile onto one bed, adolescents and adults should not be part of the mix. I often stress the fact that sexual arousal is an instinctive, autonomic response; sexual arousal also happens during sleep!
Even if the overnight stay is with a relative, this story shared by a woman interviewed for my book provides a lesson: While in grade school, Phyllis spent a night at her grandmother's very small house. She was assigned to sleep in an uncle's bed, and during the night, he rolled over, cuddled up to the little girl, called the child by his girlfriend's name and fondled her in his sleep. She was strong enough to tell her parents, and while she still believes the uncle really acted unintentionally while sleeping, she refused to ever sleep at her grandparents' house again. The good news here is that this child had learned how to set boundaries, and had parents who respected them. Still, it's unwise to put your child in that kind of situation.
Once you're satisfied with who will be in the house and who will be sleeping where, an important parent-child conversation awaits concerning house rules. For example, your child may come from a bathrobe-wearing family and visit one where everyone shows up to breakfast in their underwear – this could create quite the uncomfortable moment! With younger children, there could be different rules about bathroom privacy – at what age the door gets closed or locked. If you are parenting a school-aged child, discuss these possible differences with the host parent; have the discussion directly with an older child. Read more about related family values and norms on my website.
Well-intentioned relatives and friends who agree to watch your kids overnight are a godsend to exhausted parents. Getting closer to special friends and having new experiences are wonderful parts of growing up. But it's worth spending a few minutes with the host and your child to make sure that the sleeping and bathroom rules or arrangements don't encroach on a boundary that's important to your child, and that your child is prepared for the experience of seeing different family values and norms in action. Sleepovers can be an enriching experience, and let's make sure it also feels emotionally and physically safe.
Rosenzweig is also author of The Sex-Wise Parent and The Parent's Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children. For more information, read her blog and follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.