It only takes one instance of sexual abuse to change a life forever, yet every week in Australia, many children sleep away from home in the company of strangers, all in the name of the sleepover.
When recently at a friend’s house we got on the subject of sleepovers. I commented that I didn’t understand how parents can allow their young children to sleep over at someone else’s house when they don’t know all parties who live there. It was then put to me, “well you can’t be watching them all the time can you”. While I agree with this, I certainly don’t feel comfortable with taking this unnecessary risk.
For some of us, sleepovers are considered a small risk we are willing to take, and as humans we want to put our faith in others that they will do the right thing. The problem here is that most of the time we don’t know everyone in the house. Sure we may know the child’s mother due to interacting at school, but as for anyone else who lives there or may come and go, we have very little insight. We forget or perhaps don’t even want to acknowledge that there is a good chance that all others in the house will have as much access to our kids as the intended and trusted temporary carer.
This of course should not mean that we keep our children in their own beds until they are eighteen, but it should make us mindful before so quickly saying yes when hounded by our kids to have a sleepover. It can be hard to say no. We don’t want to be the bad guy, the spoiler of fun. But mostly I think we don’t like to think that it is a possibility that an innocent sleepover can turn into a nightmare, and that there are terrible things outside our front door that we don’t like to talk to our children about. It’s time to stop crossing our fingers and hoping that all turns out well. We need to start preparing our kids for inappropriate happenings, especially if you are putting them in a situation such as the sleepover.
PREPARING OUR KIDS
Make sure you have made your child aware of protective behaviours. This includes letting them know there is nothing so bad that can’t be spoken about, and that they have the right to always feel safe. Make them aware of what safe and unsafe means, and discuss how these feelings can be expressed. Make yourself available to talk, and ensure it’s on a regular basis. Role play is very visual for kids and a great learning tool, it greatly assists them in remembering what to do if confronted with an unsafe situation. Talk about what is good touching, what is bad, and who are the people they can turn to for help.
Protective behaviours need to be spoken about in your home not once, not twice, but regularly to remind them of the strategies that will assist them in unsafe situations. This way we will feel more comfortable before they leave the house for a sleepover having that conversation with them about the importance of using their manners, brushing their teeth before bed and keeping their bodies safe.
AT WHAT AGE SHOULD WE LET OUR KIDS GO?
I don’t believe sleepovers are for a child still in their early childhood years. (Up to 10years) Young children still need the comfort of a bedtime routine to help them settle. This age group are also still too vulnerable and easily led, especially in a situation where threats can be made and promises thrown their way.
If your child tends to wake at night and hop into bed with you, my advice to you is that this should automatically make sleepovers with friends a no go zone. Being in an unfamiliar environment will waken your child up considerably if they start to stir. Not too many parents that I know of would be happy about a 3am pickup. One idea is to let them stay until bed time. To have had dinner at their friends home, had a bit of a night time play, got into pyjama’s and maybe even brushed their teeth, but then to be picked up to go home to bed.
When my children ask me if they can go for sleepovers, I have told them at aged ten we can talk about it then. I have even been as upfront with them as to tell them why. I explain to them that I don’t know everyone at their friend’s house so therefore do not feel comfortable. I have told them they can have sleepovers at the moment as long as it’s at either Grandma Grandpas or Aunty Shells. As much as I love my friends, I don’t know everyone in their house.
Some would argue that it’s more a question of who with rather than when, and while this is a major contributing factor, we still need to be mindful.
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS TO THINK ABOUT
It is not only sexual abuse we need to think about. If you have noted that the mother of the child in question screams at her children a lot, why would you put your child in that environment?
Pay attention to the behaviours displayed by the parent in question. Your child may not be disciplined by that parent, but they will be exposed to it simply by being in the home.
What’s happening in that house at the moment? Are family members visiting for the weekend? Will your child be at a party held at the house? Is there anyone else that will be sleeping over that night, siblings friends for example, an uncle, friend of the family. Will your child be primarily under that parents care? You may even feel unsettled to know there are renovations taking place at the house. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions, as there is a good chance they would ask them of you.