How to keep your kids safe at sleepovers

Keep your kids safe at sleepovers.
Keep your kids safe at sleepovers. Photo: Getty Images

Sleepovers allow children to create strong bonds with new friends and cement existing ones. They can help build resilience and teach respect for other people's personal space, cultures and behaviours. Having a sleepover provides the opportunity for parents to get to know their children's friends and observe how they interact with each other.

According to my kids, the goal of a sleepover is to NOT sleep, so the children I retrieve the next day are inevitably not the same ones I dropped off. The aftermath from lack of zzz's transforms my kids into their evil, uncommunicative doppelgangers. While this phenomenon usually translates into a wasted day, zombie children aren't my major cause for concern.

I worry they may not be in a safe environment, and I'm not alone. Recent research states 89 per cent of parents stress about their children on sleepovers. Some children wet the bed, sleepwalk or get homesick at midnight, and there is the added issue of not knowing exactly what goes on in other people's homes.

Sophia says, "We let our girls start from about eight years of age, but always only if we knew the parents. I wasn't really apprehensive because we wouldn't have sent them to anyone we didn't trust implicitly." She adds, "We had to stop sleepovers with one family because it turned out the parents were chain smoking, getting the kids to make them coffees, fed the kids basically nothing but white bread, and left the TV on all night."

Kate agreed to let her son stay overnight at his best friend's house after a successful school camp in Year One. Now she says, "They only go to houses where I know both parents very well so not much worry, (always a little of course)." Her youngest struggles without sleep so she'll only invite up to two kids to stay at her house where she sets the ground rules. "I choose a time that I think is late enough then start suggesting, 'time to quieten down now'. After [the] third warning they got, 'any more noise and you'll move to separate bedrooms'. [That] always worked."

Heather has actively encouraged sleepovers since her child was in Year One, regularly asking up to eight boys and girls over, who frequently stay up all night with no 'lights out' curfew. She adds, "It is a great way to get to know the kids. I hang in the kitchen and one by one they drip in and I have a conversation with them." She doesn't check up on her kids when they're at friends' houses because she takes the time to meet the parents, but says 'heaps of kids' she doesn't know are dropped at her house.

Debbie Clarke, owner of martial arts school, Southern Cross Bujutsu, believes parents should always know who their kids are with. Frighteningly, one in four children will be victims of unwanted sexual contact before they turn 18. This is why   *Rebecca refuses to send her daughter on sleepovers. Predators can be anyone, anywhere. Opportunity lurks in the tickly fingers of a relative or the charming smile of a family friend, so Rebecca chooses not to expose her child to unnecessary risk.

Debbie runs a self-defence course for children, which includes both physical and theoretical strategies for staying safe at sleepovers. Parents are encouraged to participate and urged to openly discuss 'touchy' subjects with their children from a young age.

She advises using plain words that kids will understand, but to refrain from striking fear into them and making them paranoid. Parents should teach their children to be prepared. Debbie says, "Talking to them is really important and it's better than them being in blissful ignorance, but along with talking has to go the coping strategies."

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Recommended checks:   

1.    Never leave a child with someone you don't know.

2.    Find out who else will be in the house.

3.    Listen to your child and never force them to stay.

4.    Ensure your child has a charged mobile phone with your number on speed dial, or have memorised or written it down.

5.    Tell your child not to go anywhere alone with an adult.

6.    Stress to your child not to enter anyone else's bedroom.

7.    Ensure your child practises calling you with their code word or phrase that conveys their feelings of being worried or scared.

8.    Be clear that your child can contact you at any time without you becoming angry.

9.    Advise them to avoid anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or clashes with their values.

10. Discuss refraining from abusing alcohol, drugs and social media.

As children age, rules for sleepovers change and the dangers differ. When her eldest was 15 through to 18 years old, Kate enforced the rule of no sleepovers after parties, ensuring she would not remain ignorant if her son abused drugs or alcohol. She says the teenagers who didn't have to face their parents, behaved the worst.

Sleepovers should be a fun experience at any age, but life can be unpredictable. By opening a dialogue we can equip our children with the knowledge and coping mechanisms for any situation. In a perfect world they could even learn to control their grumpiness from lack of sleep.  

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