While some people recall their first slumber party fondly, I can’t help but cringe at the thought of mine. I, like so many others I've talked to over the years, didn’t merely dislike sleeping away from home—I dreaded it.
The main source of my sleep anxiety was an overwhelming sense of the unknown. I didn't know how bedtime worked at my friends' houses. Would I be able to fall asleep? What if I had a bad dream in the middle of the night? I was an extremely routine-oriented kid, and I was terrified to lose that sense of comfort and familiarity. And I know I wasn't the only one.
Sleep anxiety is a real concern for lots of kids.
You’re definitely not alone if your child has sleep anxiety and a hard time sleeping away from home. Matt Lundquist is a psychotherapist in New York, and he believes nearly every child has felt anxious about sleepovers at some point in their lives. After all, he explains, nighttime can be tough for kids no matter where they are. “Bedtime in general is emotional for kids."
Child anxiety is on the rise, and this includes sleep anxiety. When bedtime is already stressful for some kids, it’s easy to see why the idea of sleeping in an unfamiliar house could prompt a sense of dread. For some kids, it's about separation anxiety. Not all kids are used to spending time away from their family and home. Then for others, it really has strong ties to social anxiety. Being at a sleepover either one-on-one or in a group can amplify worry about acceptance, social norms, and more. Simply put, sleepovers come with a lot of unknowns.
Kavita Tahilani is a psychologist in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department at NYC Health, and she says it can be hard to pinpoint the exact anxiety.
“A child may not even have specific fears, but may feel a general sense of anxiety or uneasiness because they don’t know exactly what to predict,” she says. "But remember you aren’t powerless against sleepover-related anxiety."
As stressful as sleepovers can be for children, they’re an important learning opportunity. They're vital to developing a greater sense of independence later on in life and important soft skills. And this is true for both kids and adults.
Get ready to conquer sleepover fear.
Now you don't have to just forgo sleepovers altogether. Instead, try to find ways to empower your child and help them learn how to deal with it on their own. The best way to do this is to just talk about it. If you know sleep anxiety or sleepovers are challenge areas for your child, encourage them to be honest with you. Let them lead the conversation and voice their concerns.
As part of the overall conversation, be sure to focus on the positives, too. While sleepovers can bring worry, they're also a lot of fun—games, junk food, movies. What are your kids looking forward to?
Another way to calm the nerves, Lundquist says, is to have your child do the packing for their big night. They can include comfort object (maybe a favorite stuffed animal or toy) to bring with them.
“In a sense, the object represents parents and home, and can help them take mom or dad ‘with them,’” Lundquist says.
Help establish further independence with a few ground rules.
Sometimes kids just need some expectations. Before you drop your child off, set some clear-cut goals with them. Michael Feder is a psychologist in the Children’s Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program at NYC Health. He says these goals could be as lofty as sleeping through the night or as minor as waiting until a certain hour before they can call home.
Then he suggests agreeing on some basic rules for your child to follow in case they feel anxious. For instance, you can allow your child to text you throughout the party, but they shouldn’t ask you to pick them up unless there’s an emergency.
"A child will best learn to tolerate their anxiety if they have to muddle through the sleepover, even if they are feeling anxious,” Feder explains.
If you fail, just be ready to try again.
It’s important to be very clear that, no matter how the night went, your kid’s reputation isn’t at stake. If they got scared, or ultimately needed to come home early, they shouldn’t feel ashamed.
“We want our kids to feel that they can handle new, hard things, and that even if they don't succeed that they're going to be able to try again,” Lundquist says.
The key, he explains, is to take any risk of judgment off the table. “Too much pressure to try again too soon and a sense that Mom or Dad will be really upset or disappointed if they don't make it can often make the fear worse.”
So let your child progress as it makes sense for them, but don't give up. If you stick with and amend your strategy as needed, their anxiety will get a little more manageable every time. This process could take some time. But, once your kid nails their first sleepover and conquers sleep anxiety from beginning to end, their confidence will undoubtedly blossom.