10 Strategies for Solving Sleepover Anxiety

How to help your child cope with sleepover anxiety

Sleepover anxiety is normal.

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For some kids, sleepovers are a highlight of their social lives. But for others, the thought of spending a night away from home can feel scary and overwhelming.

Sleepover anxiety usually shouldn’t be a cause for concern. It can be an opportunity to help your child practice acting brave so they can gain confidence in their ability to face fears.

If your child is struggling with sleepover anxiety, these strategies can help them get through the night at their friend’s house.

1. 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 some kids still don’t like sleepovers 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?

Most concerns about sleepover problems 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 a scout camping trip before they're ready to do so might make things worse. If they have a terrible time, they may become less likely to do a sleepover again in the future.

That’s not to say your child won’t ever need to do an overnight somewhere else. Whether you need them to stay with your parents 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 your child is going to need to spend the night at someone else’s house in advance, like when a work trip is going to take you out of town, choose someone that your child is close to.

Even if it’s a babysitter he knows well—but the babysitter has always come to your home—it can be helpful to go with them to visit the other home before they spend the night.

If you can, go for a 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.

If your child is especially nervous about a planned sleepover, consider if it might be an option to do 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 there together, your child will likely feel more comfortable about doing a sleepover on their own in the future.

2. Choose the First Sleepover Carefully

The first sleepover is an important one. If it goes well your child may grow confident they can do it again. If they are homesick or go home in the middle of the night, they may be scared to try another sleepover in the future.

Choose the first sleepover carefully. Spending the night with a friend your child is really familiar with—and parents they know well—can increase the chances of success.

You also might consider which type of sleepover will work best like the first one. While some kids will 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. 

3. Acknowledge Your Child’s Fears

If your child tends to agree 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) can also take a physical toll on a child. An anxious child may also 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. It’s not a big deal,” but to your child, it is a big deal.

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, see if you can help your child identify exactly what they're feeling nervous about. Most kids worry that they’re going to experience uncomfortable emotions—in essence, they’re afraid they’re going to be afraid.

Your child might also be worried that they won’t be able to fall asleep and 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 help take away some of the discomforts they're experiencing.

4. Talk About 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 for the night.

Your child might begin to say they're too sick to go or they might ask if they have to go. It’s a good opportunity to talk about various options.

Talk about what might happen if they cancel on the friend; it may hurt the friend’s feelings or it may anger the pal if it’s too late to invite another friend over. Discuss the importance of sticking to your word in the future.

But, that doesn’t mean you need to force your child to go to his friend’s house if they're scared. 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, it may be better to think about it for a day or two before they make a final decision.

5. Prepare Your Child for What to Expect

Whether your child is going to a slumber party that involves several kids, or they're the only child spending the night with a friend, talk about what they might expect.

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

Make it clear that the 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.

You might talk to the other parent ahead of time to explain that it’s your child’s first sleepover. If you or your child has specific questions, it may be helpful to ask something like, “Does your child sleep with a night light?” Gathering that information now can help you prepare your child for what they might expect.

6. Practice One Step at a Time

If your child is 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.

If they always want to come home as soon as it gets dark or has never been to a friend’s house for more than an hour at a time, it could be helpful to take some small steps to help gradually get used to the idea of being away from home for the night.

Some ways you might do that could include:

  • Spend the night at Grandma’s house before staying over at a friend’s house.
  • Go to a friend’s house for the whole day.
  • Go to a friend’s house and stay until bedtime.

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

If your child is attending a week-long camp or going away for a long weekend, make sure they have success doing 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.

7. Do Some If…Then Planning

Your child will feel more confident when they know how to respond to uncomfortable feelings, so you can 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 night light.
  • 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 are embarrassed because they wet the bed, talk about how they can discreetly wear a pull-up so the friend won’t know.

Or, if they're terrified of the dark, encourage them to bring their own nightlight and tell them that they can explain to the friend 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.

8. 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 that your child can take with them to the sleepover that will help them feel more at home when they're away. They might want to pack one of your t-shirts to remind them of you while away.

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

9. Create a Plan

Emphasize to your child 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 (if, in fact, it’s an option for you to pick them up early).

Talk about what they can do if they're having a really hard time. The first step might involve talking to the 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.

10. 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.

A Word From Verywell

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.

In most cases, sleepover anxiety will subside with time and grade school kids will begin to enjoy overnights with their friends. But a few kids may continue to struggle with sleepover anxiety over time.

In cases where your child is especially distressed, you may want to seek professional help.

For example, if your child really wants to join a team or a club but won’t do it because there’s an overnight activity involved, it’s a sign that anxiety is affecting their life.

A professional can help your child learn the skills to manage anxious feelings so they can face fears and reach their goals. If you think your child could benefit from professional help, start by talking to the pediatrician. A physician can conduct an initial assessment and refer your child to a mental health professional if necessary. 

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