Rethinking sleepovers in the face of sexual abuse

     (<a href=Boy sitting alone photo via ShutterStock) " title="shutterstock_305464322" width="640" height="359"/>

    (Boy sitting alone photo via ShutterStock)

    Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I didn’t know a single kid who wasn’t allowed to go to sleepovers.

    Things have changed since then.

    Kids seem to be going on sleepovers (sleeping at someone’s house who is not a relative) much earlier. My younger son was three when his best friend (who lives right next door) first slept over at our house. By age five, my youngest was absolutely desperate to have her first sleepover.

    On the other hand, there are many more families today who don’t do sleepovers at all. Some only allow friends to sleep at their house, some do sleep-unders, while others skip the whole business entirely. For some families, it’s a cultural decision, not in keeping with their value system. I’ve heard lots of reasons families decide to opt out, but by far, the most commonly cited reason is fear of sexual abuse.

    I know that sexual abuse can and does happen. It happens in families, on playdates, while participating in sports, and in schools. So the decision to refuse sleepovers while allowing those other activities didn’t make sense to me.

    Until recently.

    I have four children, and they’ve all held slumber parties at my house. My kids have slept over friends’ houses plenty, too. They are constantly asking for sleepovers.

    I never blindy agree, though. I make sure they are going to the homes of families we know. I screen for guns, keep track of older siblings and “extra adults” in the house, and do what I can to “vet” the homes where they sleep.

    I thought I was doing enough. 

    Until a few weeks ago, when a friend shared that her fourth-grade daughter was molested during a sleepover at her best friend’s house. It happened while she was sleeping, and because they have talked about inappropriate touching, my friend’s daughter bravely contacted her mom in the middle of the night and demanded to be picked up.

    “While we are devastated, I know that my daughter is one of the lucky ones. We believed her, and we are taking care of her, and we are making sure she feels safe even when she is having nightmares. We are getting her therapy, and helping her cope with feelings of anxiety and PTSD, but it is not easy, and we have a long road ahead of us,” shared my friend. 

    They notified authorities and are now focusing on how to rebuild their daughter’s sense of confidence and safety. Even with all of the resources at their disposal, it’s still a trauma that they’re struggling to respond to.

    In the midst of all this, I’ve started to rethink our sleepover policy.

    Talking to your child

    Sexual abuse is an awful topic to talk about with children, but it’s so necessary. One reason my friend’s daughter was able to flee the situation was because her parents had discussed the “what-ifs” with her, and she was able to recognize something bad was happening to her. 

    This event was a tragic reminder to check in with my own kids more frequently about the tough topics, especially as they grow up and gain more freedom.

    “One thing I am grateful for, and this is something you can do, is talk to your child about what is appropriate and inappropriate touching. Teach them that if it makes them feel ‘uncomfortable’ that they should listen to their feelings and do whatever necessary to get out of the situation. Call a parent, and tell them the truth,” said my friend. 

    Technology can help

    Like many parents, I am constantly trying to pry technology out of the hands of my kids. I often send them on sleepovers sans technology so that they seize the chance to interact with their friends.

    But my friend’s daughter? She was able to get in touch with her mom by using her iPad. So I’ve decided I don’t actually care if they play Minecraft or text friends all night long. They will be allowed to bring their iThings with them on sleepovers.

    I’m also abandoning our house policy of making older kids with phones leave theirs in our family holding pen when sleeping at our house. I want them to have the same comfort my friend’s little girl did when she needed her mom.

    Open spaces

    I’ve decided to go back to sleepovers being on the first floor in open spaces like the family room, with everyone else in the house being upstairs in their bedrooms. I hope the more open the space, the less likely it is that anything secretive can happen.

    One of the houses I slept over a lot at as a child had six kids, and this was the policy they had. Sleepovers were out in the open. The abuse my friend’s daughter experienced took place in a bedroom with a closed door.

    Screening?

    I have never fooled myself into thinking that I could “spot” a potential child abuser, and this incident has reinforced that it’s really difficult, and in many cases, impossible. There are things to watch out for, sure. Adults who molest children are often friendly and popular and seen as “too good to be true.” They may babysit for free, give gifts, or be the fun adult who entertains kids so parents can have fun.

    But those characteristics describe a lot of good people, too. So what’s the difference? One thing to watch out for is grooming: the relationship an abuser tries to create with a child (and often his or her parents) before attempting abuse. Adults who consistently try to find ways to be alone with a child or children, who unexpectedly give gifts to a child to win favor, who try to coerce them to do things they normally wouldn’t, or who use “tricks,” “jokes” and “secrets” to get children to mistrust their own instincts should be watched very carefully.

    That said, few of those things were evident in my friend’s situation. What stopped a very bad situation from becoming much worse was her daughter’s response.

    Sometimes we can prevent bad things from happening to our kids, but other times, our job as parents is to prepare our children, and to help them cope and respond. This little girl has many people rooting for her, and her mother and I hope that sharing her story will help others.

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