Food For Thought

Sleepovers Can Be Fun — But They Can Also Lead To Unexpected Trauma, Says Child Psychiatrist

Dr. Mitnaul explains why this “rite of passage” is a no-no for his fam.

Kids sleepovers are often considered a fun rite of passage, but they can also pose hidden dangers.
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Generally, when people think about sleepovers and slumber parties, it's a positive association. There's so much to love about these all-night get-togethers, right? Staying up way too late, eating all the junk food, laughing until your stomach hurts... it can be a blast. But if you're honest enough with yourself, you might have a few unsavory recollections from those same experiences, too. So, while some parents see sleepovers as a rite of passage for their kids and a chance for some kid-free time for themselves, Dr. Mitnaul — a child psychiatrist (and dad of six!) on TikTok — is talking about why he sees sleepovers as detrimental to his kids' normal growth and development.

While not everyone experiences trauma while spending the night with friends, it doesn't mean you don't have some bad memories attached to those times. Maybe secrets spilled too early around friends you weren't close with, turning into giant rumors the following week at school. Someone might have coerced you into pushing boundaries you weren't emotionally ready to push, from simply sleeping outside your home to something as dangerous as trying a host parent's alcohol. Those sleepover games might have felt too mature for you at the time. Plus, c'mon: Sleepovers really screw with our routines. Sure, your kid might have fun staying up all night with their friends. But how hard does that make the next day and following evening for everyone in the household, including you?

Still, not everyone on the internet was pleased with Mitnaul's discussion of this popular kids' activity.

The big thing on TikTok right now is “#5things.” Moms, dads, and professionals are taking to TikTok to share the five things they’d never do or never let their kids do. Dentists are weighing in on the five things they’d never eat. Interior designers have shared the five things they’d never put in their homes. And many, many parents are sharing the five things they never let their kids do.

It seemed natural for Mitnaul to participate, listing the five things he’ll never do “in my own home or with my own kids.” His fifth item, no sleepovers, brought the biggest response when he posted a video to share his slumber party concerns.

Why Dr. Mitnaul Doesn’t Do Sleepovers

“You guys made it abundantly clear that you wanted to hear more about that. So, let’s talk,” says Mitnaul. “For those who mined the comments of the first video, you probably saw a lot of people there from different branches of activities that support kids, like teachers, like social workers, like people in law enforcement. And what do we know or what have we all experienced that might leave you scratching your head? One of the biggest is that often the stories that come in to us about trauma, about exposures, about inappropriate things in the lives of kids are often at the corners of experiences for our kids. By ‘corners,’ I mean those places where there’s less adult supervision, that there are a group of kids together maybe doing more impulsive things or things that they wouldn’t otherwise do under the careful watch and gaze of a loving adult.”

What kind of trouble can kids get into in these corners? That all depends on the homes they’re visiting and the friends they have. While it may not be deadly, that doesn’t make it any less scarring.

“Sleepovers often provide the right opportunity for kids to get into things that are way over their head, whether they intend to or not,” Mitnaul explains. “So, if my intention is for my child to have wonderful and close relationships with their peers and for me to have a close relationship with my child, I’m going to make sure that they do that in a situation and time that is most likely to be profitable for them and less likely to leave them scarred with trauma from which they might need to heal for the rest of their lives.”

Not All Sleepovers Are Created Equal

Mitnaul also thinks it’s worth noting that he doesn’t ban all sleepovers. As he mentioned, the key to keeping your kid safe is having an observant, loving adult present. He makes exceptions for grandparents, aunts, and uncles. You may even be extremely close to a family and, under the right circumstances, feel safe enough to let your child sleep there.

His biggest concern is with larger slumber parties, where you may not be extremely close to the parent or where the parent might not really know your child.

Signs of Recent Trauma

Some parents might scoff at this thought process or write off his concerns. Many people attended slumber parties at their friends’ homes and “turned out just fine.” The best thing you can do is know what to look for when they come home, in case something traumatic happened while they were away. The signs of trauma are long and only a “most likely” scenario:

  • Clingy/separation anxiety
  • Constricted play, exploration, mood
  • Eating disturbance
  • Feeling helpless/passive
  • Irritable/difficult to soothe
  • Repetitive/post-traumatic play
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Somatic complaints

You know your child better than anyone else. So, even if they aren’t showing any of these signs but you still feel something is off, a conversation might be in order. And whether you’re already allowing sleepovers or plan to allow them in the future, it’s important to remember that bad experiences can happen anywhere.