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September 27, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 87

Do I Really Have to Send My Tween to Sleepovers?

Episode 87

A parent who hates sleepovers writes in to ask if they are really necessary. Dr. Lisa and Reena weigh the social costs of not allowing kids to host or attend sleepovers and what parents can do instead. They also address the clear parameters that can reduce the downsides of sleepovers, raise concerns parents may not have thought of, and detail the kinds of conversations parents might have with their kids if sleepovers are going to be allowed.

September 27, 2022 | 32 min

Transcript | Do I Really Have to Send My Tween to Sleepovers?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 87: Do I Really Have To Send My Tween To Sleepovers


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: There’s one thing that I just refuse to do, and it’s sleepovers. Because you know what, they call them weekovers, because the hangover lasts for a week. 


LISA: Okay so, I hate sleepovers too Reena, we’ve never had this conversation, but like true confessions, we both hate sleepovers. And I hate them for the exact same reason, nobody sleeps and then your kid’s a big mess and then you’re dealing with the aftermath of that. 


REENA: Yeah, so we got this letter from a mom, it was really interesting, I want to read it to you. It says: ‘Dear Lisa and Reena, I’m so grateful for your podcast, it seems every time a new episode comes out the topic is just what I need to hear. I have a question about sleepovers. My daughter is a tween and is getting invited to sleepovers, usually for a birthday party or special occasion. Aside from a good family friend, we’ve taken the no-sleepover approach. My instinct as a parent tells me that the risk and worries of sleepovers are greater than the benefits. I am uncomfortable with my child being someplace overnight where I don’t know the environment, or in some cases I do and it’s not where I  want my child. I worry about safety, them being in a situation where they feel stuck until the morning. I feel bad saying no and my kids miss out on social activities, but I can’t help but feel sleepovers are unnecessary. I would appreciate hearing your take on this. Thank you for your help.’ So are they really necessary? 


LISA: No. 


REENA: Do we have to do them? 


LISA: No. I don’t think they’re necessary. But they do happen and your kid is going to get invited and so you’ve got to have a plan, right? Okay, so let’s start with, there’s so much to love in this letter. I like, Reena, really, the letters we get, I am always just like so moved by how thoughtful they are, how detailed, I mean, it’s incredible. 


REENA: Yeah. 


LISA: Okay, so in this letter, I just want to call out a few things. One is, the kid does spend nights away from the house, you know that she’s going over to a family friends’, trusted others, and so, to me, that kind of checks a box. It’s not about this kid being anxious and afraid of sleeping away from home. That is not the issue. And I think that’s good, like it’s good for kids to be able to sleep away from home if they want to. And then the other thing that is so thoughtful in this letter is that this is a parent who’s saying, it just doesn’t feel right, like there’s homes where I don’t want her overnight. And I don’t really know what the story is there, and I just so appreciate this parent listening to that gut instinct of like, either I don’t know the story or I do the story, and I don’t feel great about the story. Because I think it is a big deal to have your child spend the night in another person’s home, especially if you don’t feel like that is going to be as controlled an environment as you would want for your kid. And so I so appreciate this parent just feeling like, you know what, I’ve put the kibosh on it because I just don’t feel good about it. And I really honor that and I really respect that and I want to just say that right out of the gate. 


REENA: So do you think it’s okay to make a no-sleepover rule, is that fine? Because she’s saying here she’s invited to sleepovers in this age bracket, you know, this tween age group, for birthday parties or big celebrations and that’s kind of hard if your kid is like, no my mom won’t let me go to sleepovers. 


LISA: It is hard right? And this is one of the things that is a recurrent theme in our podcast, is the social cost of a choice a parent may otherwise feel good about, and there’s so often we’re sitting in that tension where you’re like, do I damage my kid’s social life while sticking to my values on this? Now one solution that I learned about, clearly I was the one hosting the sleepover, despite what I have said about hating sleepovers. But when my older daughter was in elementary school, we had at least one sleepover. And one of the families did the most brilliant and elegant thing, and I think everyone should have this at their disposal. They said without any weirdness about it at all, they were like, oh, we don’t do sleepovers. But we’re happy to get her as late in the evening as you’d like and to bring her back in the morning. And it was brilliant. 


REENA: That is brilliant.


LISA: It was brilliant. And of course, you know, they’re inconveniencing themselves a little bit, because I think like, you know, they came to retrieve her at 10 and I think they brought her back at 10 the next morning when, you know, the action was starting, but I thought it was such a wise way to hold that line. And they presented it in such a matter of fact way that I didn’t really give much thought to the rule. I was like, that’s a great rule, of course, and yet their child was involved in the social aspects in the ways that we would want a kid to be.


REENA: So that’s really fascinating that they were able to sort of have the best of both worlds and the child got their sleep and they’re still enjoying it. But what have you found like, what does the child lose by not going to a sleepover?


LISA: Well, I do think there can be a kind of sense of feeling left out and I will say, even the child whose parent is as wonderful as these parents were, like willing to come at 10 and return the child in the morning, you know, I think that the thing that’s exciting about sleepovers for kids is that you’re all in your sleeping bags, on the floor of some place, kind of middle of night. Like I have such vivid memories, Reena, of being in the fifth grade, we were living in Chicago at the time, and being at my friend Jenny’s house for a sleepover with our pack of friends, and like watching “Sha Na Na” until some ridiculous hour, but I also, as much as I have a kind of fond memory of that, I also have a very distinct memory of being the kid who was like, oh my gosh, can we please go to sleep? I was like, I want to go to sleep. 


REENA: Really? I was never that kid. I never thought about that.


LISA: Did you go on sleepovers? You know, I’m actually really grateful now, it drove me nuts, my mom, I would get birthday invitations to sleep over, and I knew, I knew that my mom would not let it me go because she just had this rule. She just didn’t want me going places where she didn’t know the family, which I think, I’m totally on board with that as a mom now. But I was really, my friend Jenny, who was my neighbor across the street and my cousins. Those were really the only two places. But she did exactly what that mom did. She would let me go to the party and then she would come and get me at like 9:30, as the girls were going to bed. So I still got to be part of the party, but I didn’t do the sleepover. So I felt like I was able to enjoy it, but you still feel a little bit like a reject, like, oh, my mom’s the mom who’s not going to let me go. 


LISA: Here comes my mom. 


REENA: Yeah, but you know what? In hindsight, I didn’t have to deal with any creepy dads, you know, I’m glad she sort of protected me in that way. 


LISA: Well and there is the creepy factor. And I will say, and you know I am so not a fearmongering type. Like you know that’s actually the opposite of my way of thinking. But I have had to care for situations where there was either an older sibling or a friend of the older sibling who was over. 


REENA: Right.


LISA: I mean, like you don’t know who’s going to be at the house at any given time, and I have, in my clinical experience, cared for younger girls who were at another kid’s house, and I don’t know if it was a sleepover or not, but sleepovers sort of lend themselves to a fair bit of low supervision, where an older sibling or friend of an older sibling, thought it’d be really funny to show the little kids porn, or the younger kids porn. 


REENA: Oh my gosh. 


LISA: And, you know, my take on this as a psychologist is I think a kid was pretty freaked out by it. And sometimes kids and adults will process things, like if I feel freaked out maybe I don’t have to be alone with this freaked out feeling, I’m going to freak somebody else out. So I have empathy for what might have been behind a teenager’s decision to do that. But of course, I don’t use this word lightly, it kind of traumatized the younger kid to see it. And in my experience, it’s not like the kid marched in the house and announced what went on, like they felt really weird about it, and they held onto it for a few months, and they didn’t sleep for a few months, and then it finally all came out. And so I have a little bit of, you know, kind of seasoned sensitivity to, you know, you’re sending your younger kid over to a house where, especially in a sleepover, it cannot be entirely supervised. And you don’t always know who’s there, or if you don’t feel like you’re going know who’s there, and you don’t feel good about everybody who’s there, I don’t think it’s worth it. And I think that’s very much, you know, maybe warped by my clinical experience of seeing the especially bad outcomes, but I think it’s one of those things that is worth talking about. 


REENA: I hadn’t even thought about having the older siblings and just in general, like they’re in their rooms, it’s part of the, they don’t want adults around, right? So you kind of worry about that. And I’m just curious Lisa, so when you’ve got kids that get older, how long can a parent really hold out on this no-sleepover rule? 


LISA: I think it gets harder. I think, you know, teenagers will sometimes like to have sleepovers. And what I would say is kind of wonderful, I think to make it a little easier, is the older your kid gets, the more you can calculate how well your child can handle any curveballs that might come their way. You know, I think that by the time kids are 14, 15, 16, we can put more pressure on them and have higher expectations of if something doesn’t feel right, they’ll call us, if somebody’s acting in a way that feels mean that they’ll stick up about it. You know, that we can have higher expectations and make it clear that the kind of freedom that a sleepover requires is only being granted because we really trust that kid to manage the various weirdnesses that can come up in the context of that freedom. So I think as kids get older parents have more leverage to feel good about what’s going on over there. I will say Reena though, with older teenagers, also one of the reasons they sometimes want to have sleepovers is they want to drink and not come home, right, or they want to get high and not come home. So for families with older teenagers who are listening to this, if their kid is like, yeah, we’re gonna have a sleepover over at so-and-so’s house again, and you know so-and-so’s house, and you’re starting to get a Scooby sense of like, is that so you guys can go out a party and come home really messy and no one’s going to care? Like that, using the sleepover to sleep it off phenomenon is not all that rare in older adolescents. And I don’t want any parent to think that they’re being too suspicious or paranoid if they start to sense that’s what’s happening, because that definitely does happen. 


REENA: Yeah. You know, we did an episode in Season Two about you know, boyfriends wanting or girlfriends wanting to sleep over and how do you handle that? So that was a great episode, but you get into the teen years, you’re opening up a can of worms that I haven’t quite yet opened because my kids are younger, but from significant others and handling sex and drugs and alcohol and all this stuff, boy, I mean, there’s a lot of things that suddenly change between tween sleepovers and teenage years. 


LISA: Well it’s true and it’s an interesting thing, like nighttime is a very unique time, right? Like things are happening quietly, the adults are asleep. You know, they’re sort of in the house but they’re not really supervised, right? So it creates these very strange conditions for things that during the day, we know how to handle, but if it’s happening under your roof at night, or if you’ve made it possible for things to happen, then I think we do need to examine it carefully. So, Reena, here’s a question for you. Do your kids have sleepovers? 


REENA: You know, we really haven’t done much, and I think it’s largely because of COVID and, you know, as we’re sort of emerging out. They do a lot, like we’ll travel to different cities to be with their cousins, and then we do things like that which, you know, they do one night and they’re a hot mess for the rest of week. That’s really my biggest, at this point, my biggest fear with them is like they’re just a hot mess for a week. But you know, my daughter definitely wants them, I want her to have them and she’s got a great group of friends, so it’s not something that I worry about her doing. But I guess I come back to this like, do we really have to do this? It’s the after effects for me in the tween years that I just hate, but I kind of understand she wants to be with her girlfriends and they’re cute together and have a good time. And I think that the pandemic, you know, they’ve missed out on so many things, right? So like if this is really what, we’re doing okay if this is the worst of the issues right now. 


LISA: Well so let’s imagine though, just for the sake of the argument that you decide for her next birthday, she begs you, she’s like, Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, please please please, can I have a sleepover? Right, so she begs you to have her friend over. How many, let’s think about, if a family’s in that position where they’re having sleepovers, or they’ve decided they’re going to go through with it, or the kid is saying let me just try it once, let’s just think through the kinds of parameters that can be put in place to make it less miserable for the family. So I think the first question is, is it very clear to you how many kids your daughter would want?


REENA: Oh, I think like one or two max.


LISA: Okay. So smaller is probably better, right? That, you know, that idea of setting some pretty clear parameters. Around how many kids are we talking? And one of the things that is tricky is sometimes kids are in big friend groups. And they don’t really feel like they’ve got the latitude to say, you know, if the parent says you can have four kids, which already feels like a lot, but if the parent says that, they may say, yeah but my friend group has six people in it, and there’s no comfortable way to cut that down. And I think that’s a place where the parent might actually really stick to their position and say, you tell your friends that I’m being the bad guy about this, right? I can’t have more than four and so we’re not doing this sleepover, because you don’t want to not invite everybody. You know, like, I don’t know how much a parent should have to bend if they’re feeling uncomfortable about numbers, but then again, you said something else Reena. Your daughter’s friends are great kids.


REENA: They are.


LISA: Like you know they get together well as a dynamic. 




LISA: And so another way that we could kind of do this calculus for our family trying to figure it out, is if you can tolerate the idea of like the whole friend group of six coming over, one thing I’d want a parent to assess is, is it a friend group that actually does really well together on a consistent basis? Or is it a friend group, where within that friend group they can actually be really ugly with each other or they can get ugly with other people? Right? That they can sometimes act in ways as a group that is unkind to other people. If you know that’s a possibility, I would have the family seriously consider whether it’s worth having all seven of those kids, including your own, under your roof unsupervised overnight. 


REENA: Oh, okay. So you’ve got to think of those dynamics too. 


LISA: Yeah, and I think the thing we’re not talking about is, where are the cellphones during the sleepover?


REENA: Why is that?


LISA: So your daughter does not yet have one, right? 


REENA: Yeah. 


LISA: What if, let me ask you this Reena, what if for your daughter’s next birthday, and how old will she be on her next birthday?


REENA: The next birthday, she will be 11. 


LISA: Okay, so it could totally happen that you’re like, alright, this is fabulous. You can have your two darling friends over. This is great. You know, I know these kids are wonderful. And, you know, we’re gonna give it a try. And one of the kids shows up with a phone and wants to have it with them for the duration of the sleepover. 




LISA: What do you think? 


REENA: Oh I had never thought of that. 


LISA: Totally happens. Totally happens.


REENA: Okay, if this is the teenage years, you know if this is where one person does, maybe phone the other parent and just say, is it okay with you, we charge ours, can she charge it and we’ll have her check in at night and leave it that way? I think that’s probably how I would handle it. But if it is, everyone has cellphones and they’re teens, you can’t really say, okay everybody, here’s where you put your phones at night, right? Can you?


LISA: Or can you? I think that this is a really, in all of these questions about sleepovers, I will tell you Reena, I think this is the hardest one.


REENA: I’ve never thought of that.


LISA: I think this is the hardest one, because, like you say, asking a teenager to hand over their phone is a big deal, a very big deal. And then of course, there are parents who will make the argument, and I think this is a very good argument, that my kid needs to be able to be in touch with me while at your house, right? So they should have their phone. And yet, it does happen, and this gets back to why I don’t like kids having phones in their bedrooms, even if it’s just them, themselves, and their room, you know, 1 a.m., your judgment is bad. 


REENA: Good point. 


LISA: 1 a.m. with all of your friends around, your judgment is worse.


REENA: Yes. True. 


LISA: And that’s what we know about how kids calculate risk, is in the cold light of day, they’re like, you know what would be a really bad idea? To take a video of all of us singing along to this raunchy song. Like, they will know that at noon. At 1 a.m., a pack of kids, kind of punchy and low controls, high impulse, will be like, let’s totally take a video of us singing along to this raunchy song and also bumping and grinding in these ways, and then we’ll put it up, you know?


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: And so, that’s one version of where things go off the rails. The other version is, and I hate this, but it does happen, kids can just start getting mean, right? They can just gang up on a kid online, maybe the kid is at the sleepover, or more likely, the kid is not at the sleepover, and at one or two in the morning, just do or say all sorts of things that should never have happened. So, I think, again, when we go back to the calculus of who’s coming to the party, do they ever do stuff like this in any other setting, can you really trust they’re not going to, if you are going to let them have their phones, and, if you’re feeling iffy about it as a parent, and I would say pretty late into adolescent development, you certainly have my blessing to say to families, here’s how we do sleepovers. We’re going to have the kids have their phones until 10 p.m., and in our house the rule is that there are no phones with you overnight, so we’re going to have them in our room. If you need to be in touch with your kid, call me, we will answer it, and we will get the phone to her. 


REENA: Oh interesting, so is that what you do? You have a place at a certain time and you have them just leave them all there, and then they just get them in the mornings, and then you just tell the parent if you’re trying to reach them in the middle of the night, this is what we’re doing?


LISA: That is absolutely a way you can handle it, and you can also say to the kid, if you need to reach your parent, just come to me, I’ll give you your phone. 


REENA: Okay, okay.


LISA: Like it’s not as though it’s not accessible to you, but it’s not going to become part of how you’re playing with each other. 


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: And, what I would say is, this is a pretty rigid rule. Like this will strike some families as very severe, and so if it’s the rule that feels right for you, I think you should actually let people know in advance. Like I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you should tell people when they’re dropping their kid off. 


REENA: Oh, okay, that makes sense.


LISA: I think it should be part of the invite. Like just say, here’s how we do it in our house, we don’t have phones overnight. And you can add a little further, like you can say, and what we really want is for the kids to enjoy one another’s company, and not spend the whole time staring at their screens.


REENA: That’s good. That’s so good. 


LISA: So here’s what we’re going to do, but we have all of these parameters in place if there needs to be contact, of course we’re going to make that work, but I would say that’s a huge factor in making a sleepover work or not work.


REENA: Wow, I hadn’t thought of that, and I’m kind of thinking now that we’re probably going to be the house that nobody wants to go to the sleepover in. 


LISA: And you’re like, fine.


REENA: That’s just fine. 


LISA: We don’t want to be the house that people come to. Okay, so there’s that. So let’s say we solved the cellphone problem, of course, there’s no real solution in the end for the cellphone problem. What about the issue, how do you feel about this one, of like how much do you harp on kids to finally go to sleep? Or how much do you have a lights out? Or how much do you insist there’s a time where they’ve got to shut it down? 


REENA: Okay. Well it’s interesting because my daughter is a very early riser, to this day, in her preteen years, she’s an early riser. But by like 8:30, just like her mother, she is literally passed out. Like, just cannot keep her eyes open. So I wonder, keeping in mind sleep patterns, can you just say, okay, nine o’clock, lights out? 


LISA: Yeah I don’t think you can say nine o’clock. 


REENA: Even for a tween?


LISA: Yeah. 




LISA: I think that, unfortunately, I mean I guess, one question is, how much do you not want to be the house where everybody wants to go?


REENA: Right?


LISA: And you’re like, actually 7:30, lights out would be fine. But I think, you know, part of the fun is staying up late. But of course, after the lights go out, they’re going to continue to mess around and talk and whatever. 


REENA: Yeah.


LISA: So, this makes me think it’s probably worth having a game plan with your kid in advance. Like saying, when do you want me, I’m happy to be the tough guy in this, when do you want me to tell kids it’s lights out? When do you want us to come back down and say, okay, it’s time to be quiet quiet? Like, see if there’s some pacing you can do, that your kid has agreement on, before you have kids in the house, but then it looks like it’s all coming from you, that, I think is another way to play it. The other thing, Reena, that I have seen, and I think is really useful to do in terms of like advanced planning with your kid, if you’re going to have a sleepover, although I think after this episode, nobody’s going to want to.


REENA: Nobody’s coming to my house for sleepovers.  


LISA: Nobody’s coming to your house for sure. One thing is, I have gotten emergency calls from friends where they became aware that kids had smuggled booze into the sleepover. Like, they just knew. They heard clinking or something. They had invited kids over and they had an older teenager, and another teenager showed up with stuff, and the parents didn’t make a scene about it, but they were like, what the heck are we supposed to do? And so, in that scenario, I coached them to actually have their daughter come up for something, and then say, we know this is happening, how can we help?


REENA: Oh, wow. 


LISA: And just strategizing with the kid. So that’s one option, another option is the family could get out in front of it and say, look, we mostly the know the kids who are coming over, we wouldn’t have them over if we didn’t basically trust you and your friends, but we also get it, there’s a kind of out of control quality to sleepovers, like we can’t supervise them perfectly and it’s the middle of the night, if anything is going on that you feel uncomfortable with, come get us and we will figure out with you what to do to shut it down in a way that lets you save face. Like you can do that kind of planning, and your kid can be like, uhg whatever, you guys are so annoying, but it’s really good to have that kind of conversation. 


REENA: Okay, so it’s interesting, so you’re saying we’ve got to have these talks with your kid before, so it doesn’t all go awry. And so you’ve worked out a game plan, ahead of time. 


LISA: Yeah, and a game plan where you’re like, we’ll be the bad guys. 


REENA: Yeah, yeah.


LISA: Where you can say you’re going to the bathroom, let us know what’s going on, and then we’ll suddenly come on down unexpectedly, or whatever. But partner with your kid, about ways that sleepovers can go a little bit sideways, is another thing you could do. 


REENA: But couldn’t it also be a good thing? Like you know, they’re going to drink, wouldn’t it be better doing it in a safe space than, you know, driving out somewhere in a back lot or whatever? 


LISA: Oof. Okay, so that is a really important question. Okay, the most important answer I have for you is if a kid drinks at your house and goes out and hurts themselves or hurts someone else, you are legally liable. 


REENA: In every state?


LISA: Uhh, I wouldn’t take my chances. Like look up where you are state by state, but even if you didn’t know that they were drinking. 


REENA: Even if you didn’t know, and you could prove you didn’t know?


LISA: Even if you didn’t know, yeah, oh no. There are situations, legal situations, where the family wasn’t even in town.


REENA: Oh my gosh.


LISA: And kids had kids over, and something horrible happened, and that family ended up in jail, like those parents ended up in jail. 


REENA: What?


LISA: Yeah.


REENA: Oh my gosh, Lisa, this is like the first talk we need to have at like the age of five. You’ve freaked me out now, at this point. 


LISA: Well, if there’s something to be freaked out about in parenting, this is one of them. Right? 


REENA: Wow, really? I can see why.


LISA: So if your kid’s like, what’s the big deal, so what if we drink here, and it’s safe, you can say here’s the big deal, if anything goes wrong, if somebody gets hurt here, or after the fact as a result of the drinking, we could be in real legal jeopardy, and that’s why. And, I mean, it’s hard to argue with that, I think.


REENA: Or has an allergic reaction to something, or you just never know. 


LISA: Yeah. You never know, you never know. So that’s the answer on drinking, you’ve got to be really really smart about that. 


REENA: That is fascinating. 


LISA: Okay, so sleepover city.


REENA: We’ll pass, thanks. Next episode. 


LISA: No I’m glad we talked about it, I’m glad we talked about it.


REENA: I really am, because there’s so many things that I just hadn’t thought of. So what do you have for us, Lisa, for parenting to go?


LISA: No sleepovers. No, that’s too easy. I think the takeaway of parenting to go in this episode is, treat your kid like a partner in potentially dicey situations. That, anytime you know your child might be stuck between wanting to save face with their friends and wanting to do the right thing, if you can get out in front of that and say, we want you to be able to do both, here’s a strategy, you can call us, or send us this text, or come up and say these secret code words, that is a huge gift to give your kid, and it’s a realistic understanding of how complicated these situations are for the kid who’s sitting in the middle of them. 


REENA: One of the biggest takeaways I’ve always had from this podcast is having conversations early, before things happen with your kids. 


LISA: Yeah.


REENA: Just so you’re kind of gaming things out. Yeah, having these conversations ahead of time really matters, and next week in fact, we’re going to talk about how do I get my kid to give up pot? I’ll see you next week.


LISA: See you next week.


The advice provided here by Dr. Damour and the resources shared by her AI-powered librarian, Rosalie, will not and do not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.