How to Help Kids With Sleepover Anxiety
A step-by-step plan for building comfort (and courage!) away from home
Karen’s daughter, Amy, begged her mom to let her go on her first sleepover. But her friend retreated to her parents’ bedroom, and when Amy awoke in the middle of the night, she discovered she was alone. On her next two overnights, Amy ate too much, leaving her feeling sick and anxious about asking the parents for help. The second time this happened, she called her mom and pleaded to come home. Karen picked her up at midnight and proclaimed no more sleepovers.
Overnights should be a fun part of growing up, says Laura Kirmayer, PhD, a clinical psychologist. They also teach kids to sleep away from home. But overnights can be challenging—to kids and parents alike. When kids have sleepover anxiety, a step-by-step scaffolding can help them face their fears and build bravery.
Dr. Kirmayer says there’s no specific age it’s suddenly time for a first sleepover. In fact, it should be the child’s idea, not the adult’s. “I’ll talk to parents first to see if the child is eager and the parent is staying neutral, not adding pressure with the idea that this is something kids need to do, that it’s really important,” she says. Parents may feel their kids are missing out socially if they don’t go on sleepovers, but she says that’s not necessarily true. “Long daytime play dates can be just as good,” she says.
Dr. Kirmayer does see the value in successful sleepovers for kids who are anxious. “If they overcome the fear of sleeping outside the safety and comfort of their own home,” she says, “there can be real significant advantages in feeling confident and increasing self-esteem.”
Once you’ve established that your child is motivated it’s time to assess her readiness. Has she ever spent the night away from home, in a hotel or at a relative’s, or even camped out in the living room? Also, look at your child’s sleep patterns. How dependent is she on a nighttime routine? How easily does she tend to fall asleep? Does she wake up in the middle of the night?
Now you can begin making step-by-step plans for a successful sleepover with your child, especially if she can articulate her fears. For instance, her issues might be: “What if I need to use the bathroom? Wet my bed? Get sick and need help?” Then, you can make sure she knows where the bathroom and the adults’ bedroom are. And if, say, she’s used to reading in bed before sleep, you could explain that she might not be able to do that on an overnight.
Working on bravery
When a child is anxious, there can be a lot of somatic complaints such as headaches and stomach aches. If a child tends to get an upset stomach when she’s anxious, clued-in parents can work on steps they can take so she can experience the upset stomach and still be able to stay. For example, by reminding her that she sometimes gets stomach aches when she’s anxious but that she is practicing being brave and also doing something she wants to do, you can help her enjoy a fun, exciting thing.
If kids are 10 and older, you can help them practice relaxation techniques. If kids are younger, the solution might be just helping them understand when they have those uncomfortable feelings there’s something they can do: Try to go back and have fun.
Many kids may not be able to articulate their feelings, but if you know your child is afraid of the dark, for example, you can make sure she has a nightlight or a small lantern.
In terms of concrete steps on the road to successful sleepovers, Dr. Kirmayer offers these ideas.
Step 1: Camp out
By sleeping together with your child in a backyard tent or the downstairs living room, you can provide a fun, safe foray to test the waters with a trusted adult close by.
Step 2: Sleeping over at relatives’ homes
This could be ideal because of your child’s familiarity with both the adults and the home. You can talk comfortably about her issues and how they can be alleviated. Also, the relative can report back if something goes wrong.
Step 3: Host the first sleepover with a friend
If you have a peer over to your house first, your child will already be comfortable with her surroundings. But it will give you some familiarity with how she interacts during a sleepover, providing you with ideas for scaffolding and recommendations you might make to other parents.
When there are factors like social skills deficits, ADHD, or disruptive sleep issues such as sleepwalking, bedwetting, or night terrors, Dr. Kirmayer recommends that sleepovers take place in the home for a while. This enables you to help support the social interactions as they’re occurring, see potential issues, and plan for them.
Step 4: Make the first sleepover in a home where the child is comfortable with the parents
This overnight isn’t necessarily at your child’s best friend’s house. Instead, plan with your child to take this step in a home where she feels very familiar with the adults. She’ll be better able to go to them if there’s a problem and you’ll be able to talk with them in advance so that they be there for her if she needs help.
Step 5: Spending the night at friends’ homes and sleepover parties
Once your child has gained confidence, she can go ahead and try the next logical steps: spending the night at a friend’s home where she isn’t as familiar with the parents and, ultimately, larger sleepovers. Again, all of this is dependent on your child’s motivation.
However, always be prepared for that call
“You’ve got to be ready and willing to pick them up even if it’s 2 in the morning,” Dr. Kirmayer says.
But even if it seems that you’ve tried too much, too soon, she suggests that parents “don’t just swoop kids up, allowing them to engage in avoidance.” On the call, she says, “What’s really important is to engage in the emotion first—validate it. Then you can try to redirect.” If you connect with the child in the moment, she’ll be more open to you offering problem solving.
You can remind her that while it may be hard, it’s something she really wanted to do. “You can say, ‘Let’s talk about some of the things that help you be brave,’ ” Dr. Kirmayer says, noting that the great thing about having planned with your child is that you can be transparent with her, letting her know what plans you have in place to help her stay. A check-in text exchange with your child before bed might also help.
If at first you don’t succeed…
You know your child and will have to gauge whether her level of distress merits picking her up. If you do get her, Dr. Kirmayer says, you “need to approach it as ‘It’s okay. I’m not going to be frustrated. We’re working on helping you be brave. We went too fast. I made mistakes, too. We just need to plan better next time.’ ” The longer the child feels she didn’t succeed, the more likely she’s going to continue to avoid it. If she’s motivated and wants to try again, you’ll know better how to plan, allowing for greater success.
Treatment can help
If sleepovers continue to be problematic and a child is in treatment for issues such as separation anxiety, a cognitive therapy approach that teaches her to manage her fears should help. Dr. Kirmayer adds that if a child is not already in treatment, a “slam dunk consult”—a relatively brief intervention—can be enough to help your child tame her anxiety.
With steps like these, kids like Amy could be well on their way to sleepovers filled with friendship and giggles.