Sleepovers: Why we’re getting it all wrong

At 47 years old, having sleepovers with girlfriends still brings me such joy. Staying up late catching up then spending all morning in pajamas drinking coffee. Laughing till we cry, commiserating, and reminiscing about the good ole days. The topics and emotions changing every half hour covering the gamut of our lives. I feel most like myself in these moments with my besties. My heart feels full and I am hopeful and optimistic all over again before returning to my life that can often feel like a beat down.

When I was a little girl I slept over my best friend Mary’s house all the time. Mary was the middle of three sisters. We all slept in one room in one big bed. All four of us would make up dance routines to Donna Summer in front of the mirrored wall in the foyer. I remember building forts out of blankets and couch cushions. There was so much laughter, four girls giggling, then fighting, then giggling some more. Truly some of the best memories of my life revolve around sleepovers.

I often hear parents say they only allow their kids to have sleepovers at family members’ homes or their very close friends and neighbors. I teach child sexual abuse prevention and I can tell you that is exactly where it is most likely to occur. More than 90 percent of child sexual abuse happens by someone you or your kid knows and trusts. More than 30 percent of the time the abuse happens within your own family. Roughly 40 percent are abused by older or more powerful children.

I have heard story after story about sexual abuse that happens at sleepovers at the hand of the friend’s older brother, cousin, uncle, father, grandpa, and even mothers. I had a dad come to me a couple of years ago so distraught. He lived on a cul-de-sac with his wife and three kids. They were best friends with three other families who were their neighbors for at least a decade. Their kids played together, their families shared meals often and they all vacationed together regularly. Then he found out one of the dads had been molesting a handful of kids within the friend group. It ripped their world apart. It broke up their friendships. They all turned on each other. The kids were damaged for life.

When I was in middle school, I had an uncle, who was only two years older than me, try to molest me while he was sleeping over our house for the weekend. He tried multiple times throughout the night but I fought him off and told my mom who banned him from every staying at our house again.

From the time I was eight until almost eleven, I lived at my grandparent’s house during the week because my mom worked the evening shift. During the summer, I would beg my grandma to let Mary stay the night. My grandma always said no. I could never understand why I could stay at her house but she wasn’t allowed at mine. It wasn’t that my grandma didn’t like her. Mary would play at our house all the time. She would swim in our pool and have dinner at our house, but she was never allowed to stay over. I used to cry myself to sleep and truly believed that my grandma didn’t love me. Now that I am older and have studied child sexual abuse in families, I believe my grandma didn’t allow Mary to sleep over because she knew my grandpa was molesting me. I don’t know if she was protecting my friend from being molested or my grandpa from being exposed.

Is the answer to not allow your kids to sleepover other people’s homes? That is the solution we teach in child sexual abuse prevention but it saddens me deeply to think about my kid missing out on that experience. My daughter has had numerous friends sleepover in the last 18 years. I enjoy having a house full of kids so some of those sleepovers were just as much fun for me as they were for her.

Some parents allow kids to sleepover at their home but do not allow their own kids to sleepover other peoples’ homes. That can raise suspicion or cause hurt feelings even when the intentions are innocent.

There are no easy answers. The necessary steps to prevent child abuse aren’t always convenient or comfortable but that shouldn’t matter when it comes to the safety of your child. Is withholding this experience from your child worth keeping them safe? What are the repercussions, if any, of not allowing sleepovers?

You must decide what is best for your child.  I am not going to say don’t allow sleepovers even though my training says just that. I am asking you to educate yourself and your child first. Predators are skilled at grooming. Grooming is the method used to gain your trust and access to your children. Predators always appear to be upstanding citizens, wonderful neighbors, the favorite teacher, great coach, or helpful pastor. Predators deliberately target those who have not educated themselves on child sexual abuse prevention. They also target those who are too uncomfortable or passive to speak up. Don’t let yourself or your child be a target.