After two failed attempts at sleeping over at a friend's house -- including being driven home at 1 a.m. -- Ava Kramer, 9, happily made it through the night a couple of months ago. "My husband and I did FaceTime with Ava just before she got ready for bed, and it reduced her anxiety about being away from us," says her mom, Alicia, of Atlanta. "She ended up having a blast."
Sleepovers are a big step for 7- to 9-year-olds, says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent. "If your child likes them, chances are she is growing more comfortable with separation from you," she notes. With these tips, you can increase the odds that she won't want to bail around bedtime.
Offer to host
Before you okay a sleepover at a friend's house, let your child test the waters by inviting her pal to yours. "That way, you'll see if your child grows tired of being with her friend or starts to squabble with her after a couple of hours -- a sign that she may need more social-skills practice before staying over at another family's home," says Dr. Walfish. Or if both kids are sleepover first-timers, try a "sleep-under" -- you plan dinner and common sleepover activities (like crafts or watching a movie), but the other child goes home in pj's before bedtime. "Your child may ask to invite two or three friends, but it's better to start with just one other child to minimize conflict," points out Dr. Walfish. If possible, let your child have one-on-one time with her friend, and occupy siblings with other activities.
Talk about what to expect
Getting cold feet before or even during a sleepover often stems from the unknown. Your kid may wonder where he'll sleep, whether it's okay to call you before bed, or if bringing along his favorite stuffed animal will make him look babyish -- and you may have some of the same anxieties too. So before you accept an invitation, find out how the sleepover will unfold and bring up any concerns you have.
However, try to limit requests. For instance, it's not necessary that the hosts make sure your son takes a vitamin in the morning if you're picking him up after breakfast. But it is crucial to let them know about fears (he's bringing a flashlight because he's afraid of the dark), allergies, and any reminders that he needs (like using the bathroom before bed). If there's a routine at home that helps him doze off, like reading a story or playing a game, it may be worth mentioning.
Get your kid on board
Once you are comfortable with the arrangement, fill your child in on the details. Sharing intel is also a good practice if you're hosting. "I've learned from experience that the night goes more smoothly when I loop in parents in advance, and I always fill in the kids themselves when they arrive," says Chrissy Jones, of Chicago, who hosts sleepovers a couple of times a month for her 8-year-old son, Trent. Also, make a plan about how to say good night. "Some kids might do better with a short text, whether from their device or the host parent's, but ones who tend to be more sensitive or clingy may prefer a phone call or even a video chat," says Dr. Walfish.
Help everyone get along
If you're hosting a sleepover with more than one other kid, decide how you're going to handle who gets to sleep next to the birthday child or play the first round of Just Dance. "After I foolishly let a bunch of girls choose where to sleep at my 7-year-old daughter's party -- and it got dramatic fast -- I came up with the 'Cup of Destiny' for future sleepovers," says Alison Risso, of Silver Spring, Maryland. "Kids write their name on a slip of paper, I put them in a gold plastic cup, and I pick names to determine the order of games and where they sit at the table or sleep. When the assignments were random, there wasn't any bickering."
Know when to fold
If your child's at his first sleepover and wants to come home for a reason that can't be fixed ("I miss you and I can't fall asleep" or "Their dog is barking and scaring me!"), it's best just to pick him up rather than try to persuade him to stay. "Doing so establishes the trust that you will come get him if he needs it," says Dr. Walfish. "The next day, you can talk about how he felt, and what might make it better in the future. But dwelling or overanalyzing will only make him feel like he failed."
Trust your gut
Don't feel like a lame parent for declining a sleepover request. "We're just not comfortable with having our kids -- ages 9, 12, and 14 -- stay over at their friends' houses," says Catia Dias, of Ontario, Canada. "I always make it clear that it's just our family policy rather than singling out a friend. "Even if you're open to sleepovers in the future, it's smart to skip one if you think your kid isn't quite ready. Says Dr. Walfish: "It's better for kids to have a positive first experience than to risk an embarrassing or upsetting incident that might turn them off altogether."
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Parents magazine.