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‘Sleepovers’: Are they as innocent as they sound?

Last week I met a mother who couldn’t wait to tell me her story about a ‘sleepover’ she held for her 14 year old daughter. Actually, it wasn’t really about the event itself, it’s what happened before and after that blew her mind and had me gasping!

Jane is the mother of three girls, the oldest of which has just turned 14. To celebrate her daughter’s recent birthday she agreed to hold some sort of small gathering with a few of her friends being invited. After some discussion about what she wanted (and what Jane was willing to do!) it was decided that four friends would be invited for a ‘sleepover’ on a Saturday night. This would involve the invitees staying the night and Jane would provide food, some games and a video or the like through the night. The family had only just moved to a new city and new school and Jane did not really know any of her daughter’s friends and saw the event as not only a good way to get to know them but also their parents.

Invitations were written and were hand-delivered to the four girls at school (something Jane didn’t feel entirely comfortable about but was told that this was the way it was done) and she was informed by her daughter that all four girls would be attending. Over the next week Jane waited to hear something from any of the parents – her number had been included on the invitation and she had anticipated that there would be some type of questions asked about the night and what was planned – but there was nothing! After discussions with her husband, she agreed that they must just be waiting for the actual evening to check things out and it would all be sorted when the girls were dropped off on the night. That was not the case, however, as each of the girls were dropped off in the driveway (although Jane could not guarantee that as she did not see all of the cars actually arriving) and not one of the parents accompanied their daughter to the door! She did not meet one of the parents, had not been asked anything about the event and what was going to be happening and really didn’t even know if they had any idea who their daughters were with and where they actually were!

Jane was flabbergasted! These were 14 year old girls – the potential for tragic consequences were very real and yet their parents couldn’t even be bothered to make one simple call, or take a quick walk down a driveway to find out who they were leaving their daughters with for the evening – totally gobsmacking!

In the last few years I have seen the growth of so-called ‘sleepovers’ (particularly in Year 9) and it is becoming increasingly obvious that these are not always the innocent events that they purport to be … Of course there are those, like the event that Jane put on for her daughter, that are exactly what you would expect them to be, i.e., nights involving young teens staying over at a friend’s house doing fun things. That said, ‘sleepovers’ can also be ‘teenage code’ for “I’m going out to a party drinking and I’m not telling my parents!” Telling your parents that you’re going to a friend’s house for a sleepover and won’t be home until mid-morning the next day is a great way of getting around parental rules governing parties and gatherings, as well as ensuring that they won’t be able to detect if they’ve been drinking alcohol. It’s the perfect cover and parents are falling for it ‘hook, line and sinker’!

So how do you know if the sleepover is real or not? This is where I get totally floored by some parents’ behaviour because it’s not exactly rocket science – call the house where the supposed event is taking place and ask the parents about what is planned! If your child won’t give you a contact number, tries to tell you that you won’t be able to reach them, or that they don’t have a phone (can you believe that some parents actually fall for that?) or that you would “shame them forever” if you do call – it’s a pretty sure bet that something is up … What is amazing about Jane’s story is that she did make herself available for parents, expecting them to call and check and not one of them did!

So is it enough just to call beforehand or have a quick chat when you drop them off? Well, in actual fact research suggests that if they want to do the job properly, parents should also occasionally check-up on the event through the night, i.e., call the house (on a landline) and talk to either the parent, or even better, your child, just to make sure that they are still there and that things are going as planned. Make up an excuse if you don’t want to sound like you are checking up on them (e.g., “We can’t find the remote for the TV, did you happen to put it somewhere before you left?”) and never try call them on their mobile as you never really know where they are when they answer that!

But back to Jane’s story … I have been trying to fathom the reasons why these parents wouldn’t have made the call beforehand or walk their daughters to the door and meet the family that they were going to entrust their child to for the evening. I’ve come up with three possibilities – all of them sad and completely unacceptable:

  • they were bullied by their 14 year old daughter and told that they couldn’t make contact with another parent for fear of ‘shaming’ them in some way
  • they had plans for the evening and if they did too much digging, they may have to actually say ‘no’ to their daughter and look after her themselves – the ‘sleepover’ offered a free child-minding service and they didn’t want that spoiled
  • they just don’t care

Some may say I’m being too harsh here but really if anyone can come up with a better reason, please let me know. As I said, there are ‘legitimate’ sleepovers held every weekend across the country and there are many parents who are trying to do the right thing and monitor their teens the best they can (and I get that it’s not always easy!) but Jane’s story highlights a significant issue that is of great concern. How many parents really know where their teens are on a Saturday night and how hard are some of them trying to find out?

Teens are going to try to push the boundaries as much as possible, particularly during those difficult years of 14-16 years when they are first learning how to be young adults. It’s a parent’s job to try to keep them safe through this time and the best way to do that is to monitor them as best you can – i.e., know where they are, who they’re with and when they’ll be home – always remembering that sometimes they are going to lie straight to your face when you ask them these questions. It is important therefore that checks are done to verify the information they provide! It takes some work but isn’t your child’s safety and wellbeing worth it?

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