Strategies to Help Ease Your Child's Sleepover Anxiety

Five young girls on a bed having a sleepover

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For some kids, sleepovers are the highlight of their social lives. They get to stay up late, eat junk food, tell stories, and hang out with their closest friends. But for others, the thought of spending a night away from home can feel scary and overwhelming. Consequently, they may struggle with sleepover anxiety.

Sleepover anxiety usually isn't a cause for concern. In addition to being common, it's an opportunity for kids to practice being brave so they can gain confidence and face their fears. For children who are struggling with sleepover anxiety, these strategies can help them get through the night at their friend’s house.

Wait Until Your Child Is Ready

There isn’t a "right" age where kids should be able to do sleepovers. Some kindergarteners are happy to stay at a friend’s house while other kids still don’t like sleepovers even in the tween years. It’s all about your child’s personality, comfort level, and preferences.

Some kids experience separation anxiety when they’re away from home. Others worry about practical issues like "What if I wet the bed?" Still, others simply fear the unknown.

But most concerns about sleepovers resolve on their own over time.

If your child isn’t interested in sleeping at a friend’s house, don’t push the issue. Forcing a child to go to an overnight birthday party or on a scout camping trip before they're ready might make things worse. If they have a terrible time, they may become less likely to sleepover again in the future.

That’s not to say your child won’t ever need to spend the night somewhere else. Whether you need them to stay with their grandparents while you’re out of town, or you need them to stay with a friend when you’re having an emergency appendectomy, there may be times when sleepovers aren’t optional.

If you know in advance your child is going to spend the night at someone else’s house—like during a work trip that takes you out of town—choose someone your child is close to.

If you can, visit together during the day and talk about where they're going to sleep, the nighttime routine, and what they might expect when sleeping over. That can help alleviate some anxiety. Even if you select a babysitter they know well, it can be helpful to visit the other home before they spend the night.

If your child is especially nervous about a planned sleepover, consider doing a trial run where you spend the night too. Staying over with your child at a grandparent’s house or a family friend’s home can alleviate a lot of anxiety. After you’ve spent a night together, your child will likely feel more comfortable about doing a future sleepover alone.

Choose the First Sleepover Carefully

The first sleepover is an important one. If it goes well, it can build your child's confidence. But if they're homesick or go home in the middle of the night, they may be scared to try another sleepover in the future.

As a result, choose the first sleepover carefully. Spending the night with a friend your child is really familiar with—and parents they know well—increases the chances of success.

Also consider which type of sleepover will work best. While some kids do best when they’re the only guest at a friend’s house, others will be more successful at a bigger event, like an overnight adventure with their youth group or a sports team.

Acknowledge Your Child’s Fears

If your child agrees to sleepovers only to be filled with panic in the hours leading up to the event, they're not alone. Many kids experience fear and dread as the sleepover looms.

The stress of being away from home (or imagining being away from home) also can take a physical toll on a child. An anxious child also may report somatic concerns too, like headaches or stomachaches, which serve as tangible evidence of their emotional turmoil.

When you notice your child is nervous, you might be tempted to say something like, “It’s just one night," or "It’s not a big deal." But to your child, it is a big deal. Instead, validate your child’s feelings by saying something like, “I know you’re a little scared about being away from home for the night,” or “I wonder if your tummy hurts because you’re feeling a little nervous about the sleepover.” Normalize your child’s distress by saying something like, “A lot of kids get nervous before a sleepover.”

Then, help your child identify exactly what's causing the nervousness. Most kids worry that they’re going to experience uncomfortable emotions—in essence, they’re afraid they’re going to be afraid. Sometimes kids worry that they won’t be able to fall asleep or that they'll be scared. Or, they might be nervous that they'll feel homesick.

Labeling emotions and naming the things they're worried about can decrease some of the discomforts they're experiencing.

Discuss the Downsides of Backing Out

Many kids commit to sleepovers because they’re excited about spending time with their friends. But as the night nears, their excitement turns to dread as they begin thinking about being away from home. Kids often complain that they're too sick to go; or they might ask if they have to go. This is a good opportunity to talk about various options.

Discuss what might happen if they cancel on their friend. For instance, cancelling may hurt their friend’s feelings or it may anger their pal if it’s too late to invite another friend over. Emphasize the importance of sticking to your word.

But, don't force your child to go to their friend’s house if they're terrified. You might decide to cancel and talk about how to respond to an invitation in the future. Instead of agreeing to a sleepover right away, think about it for a day or two before making a final decision.

Prepare Your Child for What to Expect

Whether the sleepover is a slumber party that involves several kids, or your child is the only kid spending the night with a friend, talk about what might happen.

Explain that every family does things a little differently. Their friend’s family may have different rules, different bedtime routines, and different habits.

Make it clear that their friend’s family may not read before bed like your family does. Instead, they might do chores or pray together. Talk about the importance of being flexible and respectful of other families.

Consider talking to the other parent ahead of time to explain that it’s your child’s first sleepover. Address any specific questions or concerns. For instance, it may be helpful to ask something like, “Does your child sleep with a nightlight?” Gathering that information now prepares kids for what they might expect in the future.

Practice Facing Fears

When kids are invested in spending the night at a friend’s house, but nervous about doing it, look for ways you can help them practice facing their fears. For instance, if they always want to come home as soon as it gets dark, or they have never been to a friend’s house for more than an hour at a time, take small steps to help them get used to the idea of being away from home for the night.

Some ways you might do that could include:

When children gain confidence that they can do most of the steps involved in a sleepover, they're more likely to be successful.

Likewise, if your child is attending a week-long camp or going away for a long weekend, make sure they have success with overnight trips first. If they can sleepover at a friend’s house for one night without any kind of issue, they'll be more confident that they can be away for a couple of nights.

Do Some "If…Then" Planning

Children feel more confident when they know how to respond to uncomfortable feelings. Assist them by doing some "if…then" planning.

Work together to help identify strategies that will help deal with difficult emotions like anxiety and sadness, as well as tough circumstances like trouble falling asleep.

Here are some examples:

  • If I feel homesick, then I will call Mom and Dad.
  • If I feel scared, then I will ask to turn on a nightlight.
  • If I feel ill, I will tell my friend's parents.
  • If I'm sad, I can ask my friend to play a game to cheer me up.
  • If I have trouble falling asleep, then I will read a book.

Problem-solve specific issues that can reduce your child’s anxiety. If they're embarrassed because they sometimes wet the bed, discuss how they can discreetly wear a pull-up so their friend won’t know.

Or, if they're terrified of the dark, encourage them to bring their own nightlight. Strategize how they can explain that they'd feel more comfortable if there was a little light. Make sure your child is involved in identifying the strategies they can use to cope. Having a plan in place for dealing with difficulties can help them feel more confident.

Pack Some Transitional Items

Wearing favorite superhero pajamas, using the same toothpaste they always use at home, and having a favorite teddy bear to sleep with could go a long way toward helping your child feel secure in a friend’s home.

Identify a few items they can take along that will help them feel more at home. They might even want to pack one of your T-shirts to remind them of you.

If they're embarrassed that their friend will think they're “babyish” for bringing a stuffed animal or a favorite blanket, remind them that they don't necessarily have to use it. Instead, they can keep it hidden in an overnight bag. Simply knowing it’s there may be helpful.

Create a Plan

Emphasize that feeling scared is an opportunity to be brave. But, make it clear that they don't need to spend the night if they're terrified. Talk about what they can do if they're having a really hard time. The first step might involve talking to their friend’s parent and asking to call home.

Depending on your child, a quick call to you might even reassure them that they can stay or it may make them miss home even more. If they feel they need to come home early, be willing to pick them up. The last thing you want to do is tell them they have to stick it out no matter what. Forcing them to stay overnight when they're miserable is a surefire way to discourage them from ever trying another sleepover again.

Praise Your Child’s Efforts

Regardless of whether your child makes it through the night, praise their efforts. Say something like, “I know it’s really scary to go away from home for a night but great job trying to do it.”

If your child came home early, reassure them that you’ll try it again sometime when they're ready. And make it clear that they're not a chicken or a wimp. Instead, they're brave for giving it a try.

Also, keep in mind that every child is different. So while one of your children may leap at the opportunity to attend a sleepover any chance they get, another child may prefer to sleep in their own bed.

A Word From Verywell

In most cases, sleepover anxiety will subside with time and kids will begin to enjoy overnights with their friends. But a few kids may continue to struggle with sleepover anxiety over time. If your child is especially distressed, you may want to seek professional help.

A professional can help your child learn to manage anxious feelings so they can face fears and reach their goals. Start by talking to your pediatrician. A physician can conduct an initial assessment and refer your child to a mental health professional if necessary. 

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