It’s a topic I’m constantly asked almost on a daily basis. A topic that literally scares many parents. A topic that many parents get ridiculed over by other parents or having their kids end up hating them for a day or two. It’s also a topic that is rarely discussed openly. The old story of protective parents often choosing to stay silent because of the backlash they receive from upset kids or other parents. Well… this is where that cycle must stop. The below can also be used as a guide for school overnight camps or excursions, or any situation where they are away from you.
This topic has elicited more response & discussion than most other topics I’ve ever spoke of, with reactions ranging from relieved agreement to disbelieving scorn.
Explaining why I chose to just say “no” to allowing my children to stay over with friends. Though this sometimes upset or angered the kids, and just as often upset or angered their friends’ parents, I stuck to it as a matter of personal conviction, though certainly not a matter of judgment toward those who have decided otherwise. We all parent different, & we all take child safety differently.
My decision on sleepovers is based on my 23 years experience dealing with child kidnappings, predators & sexual abuse survivors globally in the private sector & as a police officer as well as my assessment of the potential dangers my kids might face over against the benefits they might gain. This blog is a guide to potential risks & some tips on what you can do to help prevent a possible life changing nightmare.
Let me highlight one case in which a young girl was referred to PRC by a family member after attending a sleepover. Another girl from the party had told her parents she had been assaulted there. To the shock of her parents, she actually had been horribly assaulted, not by anyone who lived in the home, but by a guest who happened to be passing through town & had stayed the night in the house where the party was taking place.
Having laid the narrative groundwork from the above example, I suggest parents do careful research & consider six risk factors that come with sleepovers. This is a guide to get your brain ticking in the right direction.
- Kids are most often abused in familiar places, not in strange places. This makes the home of a friend or acquaintance a relatively common or likely place for a child to possibly be abused.
- Kids are most often abused by trusted people, not by strangers. Furthermore, they are typically abused by males. Sleepovers tend to happen in the homes of trusted people where males are present.
- Kids tend to be safest in small crowds where it is difficult to separate one from the others. A large sleepover presents an enhanced risk because kids can easily be separated from the crowd with their absence unnoticed.
- Households often have visitors staying in them as well as the “normal” family members (as with the example provided above). Even though you may assess the family to be safe, you cannot account for unexpected or unmentioned guests.
- Sleepovers often allow kids access to phones, televisions, & other media in a context in which few safeguards are in place or in which kids operate by different rules.
- Question the host parent(s) about supervision, & ask if they will be present the entire night & not hire a babysitter to help or watch the kids at any time.
Remember, sleepovers place kids in a vulnerable situation. They can find themselves alone & in a bed outside the care of their parents. Though surrounded by friends, there is typically only minimal adult supervision. Because I did not want my kids to experience this kind of vulnerability, I forbade sleepovers except in the homes of grandparents when I’m there. Based on my experience & knowledge, I strongly recommend parents do not permit their kids to participate in sleepovers.
Still, knowing that parents have the right to make that decision on their own, I suggest parents at least consider these five questions:
- Are your kids old enough to recognize when someone is trying to engage them in inappropriate sexual behavior? The younger the child, the greater the risk when you let them attend a sleepover. Younger kids won’t recognize a risky situation until it is too late.
- Are your kids assertive enough to draw attention to inappropriate overtures from other kids or adults? Some kids have the confidence to yell or push away someone who’s make them feeling uncomfortable, while other children are too timid to try to stop an adult or older child from hurting them. No child should attend a sleepover who lacks the confidence & assertiveness to rebuff inappropriate sexual behaviour. This is where body boundaries education comes in. It’s crucial you educate your kids on body boundaries.
- Will your kids call you if something unsafe is happening at a sleepover? Some kids are easily influenced by peers & won’t tell parents if something goes wrong. Having a family code that your kids can use on the phone or message eg “I have a sore finger” is an excellent way your kids can alert you if they feel uncomfortable. When you receive this code you immediately know to go pick your child up.
- How many kids will be attending the sleepover? A sleepover with more than eight kids per adult supervisor is too large. When calculating a ratio of one adult to eight children, the count must include all the kids who will be in the house at the time of the sleepover.
- Another issue to consider is the tensions that might arise with your kids & other parents if you allow your kids to go to sleepovers with some friends but not others. It’s much easier to have a ‘no sleepovers’ rule, without exceptions or individual explanations.”
There is one alternative to a sleepover that’s bound to come up short in the minds of both kids & friends’ parents, but one that may be a legitimate middle-ground: Allow your kids to go to a sleepover until it is bedtime. You can allow your kids to go & spend the evening, but then pick them up at 10:00 p.m., which will limit their vulnerability. You can also create your own.
Same as school camps or sports camps. Ideally & if it’s possible, one parent goes with them. Your kids can do all the daily activities, but then for sleeping they stay with you in a hotel or tent.
Either way, I think the most important takeaway is that parents think carefully & assess risks realistically ‘before’ allowing their kids to participate in sleepovers. Awareness is key to keeping kids safe.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing that will fully protect your kids from possible predators, & I also understand about giving kids their space as they grow into older teens (my son is 16), so it’s a fine balance. But, I know we only get one chance to protect our kids from sexual abuse or rape, there is no second chances. Predators need only seconds to abuse a child. I base my decision for my kids on those last two sentences. Nothing else is more important.
Your kids might get grumpy at you for a few hours or a few days when you say no to sleepovers, but I guarantee you they will thank you when they are older & more wiser.