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What An Expert on Sexual Abuse Says About Sleepovers

What An Expert on Sexual Abuse Says About Sleepovers

It was quite a long time ago that I wrote an article about sleepovers, explaining why my family chose to just say “no” to allowing our children to stay over with friends. Though this sometimes upset or angered our children, and just as often upset or angered their friends’ parents, we stuck to it as a matter of personal conviction, though certainly not a matter of judgment toward those who have decided otherwise. That article has elicited more response and discussion than anything else I’ve ever written, with reactions ranging from relieved agreement to disbelieving scorn.

Aileen and I did not base our decision on the counsel of anyone with expertise on the issue (though as a child I did know a police chief who told my family his line of work had led him to make the same decision). Rather, we based it on our own experiences as children and on an assessment of the potential dangers our children might face over against the benefits they might gain. But I often have wondered what experts might say on the matter. I recently read Protecting Your Children From Predators which is written by Beth Robinson, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in counseling children who have suffered sexual abuse. It was only after I began reading the book that I realized she had included a chapter on sleepovers, so I was eager to hear her experienced perspective.

She begins by describing a case drawn from her counseling practice in which a little girl was referred to her after attending a sleepover. Another girl from the party had told her parents she had been assaulted there, and so the police insisted that this little one be referred to an expert who could speak to her in such a way as to assess whether she, too, had been assaulted. And, to the shock of her parents, she actually had been terribly assaulted, not by anyone who lived in the home, but by a guest who happened to be passing through town and had stayed the night in the house where the party was taking place.

Having laid the narrative groundwork, Robinson suggests parents do careful research and consider five risk factors that come with sleepovers.

  • Children are most often abused in familiar places, not in strange places. This makes the home of a friend or acquaintance a relatively common or likely place for a child to face abuse.
  • Children are most often abused by trusted people, not by strangers. Furthermore, they are typically abused by males. Sleepovers tend to happen in the homes of trusted people where males are present.
  • Children tend to be safest in small crowds where it is difficult to separate one from the others. A large sleepover presents an enhanced risk because children can easily be separated from the crowd with their absence unnoticed.
  • Households often have visitors staying in them as well as the “normal” family members (as with the example she provided). Even though you may assess the family to be safe, you cannot account for unexpected or unmentioned guests.
  • Sleepovers often allow children access to phones, televisions, and other media in a context in which few safeguards are in place or in which children operate by different rules.

“Sleepovers place children in a vulnerable situation,” she summarizes. “They find themselves alone and in a bed outside the care of their parents. Though surrounded by peers, there is typically only minimal adult supervision.” Because Robinson did not want her children to experience this kind of vulnerability, she forbade sleepovers except in the homes of grandparents, aunts, and uncles. She also makes it clear that her recommendation, made on the basis of her expertise, is that parents do not permit their children to participate in sleepovers.

Still, knowing that parents have the right to make that decision on their own, she suggests parents at least consider these questions:

  1. “Are your children old enough to recognize when someone is trying to engage them in inappropriate sexual behavior? The younger the child, the greater the risk when you let them attend a sleepover. Younger children won’t recognize a risky situation until it is too late.”
  2. “Are your children assertive enough to draw attention to inappropriate overtures from other children or adults? Some children have the confidence to yell or push away someone who’s make them feeling uncomfortable, while other children are too timid to try to stop an adult or older child from hurting them. No child should attend a sleepover who lacks the confidence and assertiveness to rebuff inappropriate sexual behavior.”
  3. “Will your children call you if something unsafe is happening at a sleepover? Some children are easily influenced by peers and won’t tell parents if something goes wrong.”
  4. “How many children will be attending the sleepover? A sleepover with more than eight children per adult supervisor is too large. When calculating a ratio of one adult to eight children, the count must include all the children who will be in the house at the time of the sleepover.”
  5. “Another issue to consider is the tensions that might arise with your children and other parents if you allow your children to go to sleepovers with some friends but not others. It’s much easier to have a ‘no sleepovers’ rule, without exceptions or individual explanations.”

She offers an alternative to a sleepover that’s bound to come up short in the minds of both children and friends’ parents, but one that may be a legitimate middle-ground: “Allow your children to go to a sleepover until it is bedtime. You can allow your children to go and spend the evening, but then pick them up at 10:00 p.m., which will limit their vulnerability.”

Either way, I think the most important takeaway is that parents think carefully and assess risks realistically before allowing their children to participate in sleepovers. A book like Protecting Your Children From Predators may be just the thing to help them do that well.

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