The first time your child stays away from home is a momentous milestone not just for you as a parent or guardian figure, but also for your child. Even if your kiddo is all smiles and excitement about the prospect of venturing into the world without you for an evening, an entire day, or a week (if we’re talking something like summer camp), there are some important steps you can take to ensure all goes smoothly. Follow this expert advice and you’ll both feel more confident navigating this unfamiliar territory.
When Is the “Right Age”?
As is the case with many things in child-rearing, the “right age” for when a child stays the night elsewhere for the first time depends entirely on the child.
“It’s not necessarily about the age, but more about the readiness,” says Megan Romano, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) based in Brooklyn, New York. “Each child is unique with their own subjective experiences. You can have a 5-year-old excited to sleep at her best friend’s house or an 11-year-old who has trepidation because sometimes he still wets the bed when he’s anxious.”
Linda Snell, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of New Method Wellness, agrees that the right time to have your child stay away from home is all about their readiness. To help you determine if it’s an appropriate step, she recommends thinking through the following questions:
- Can your child go to bed or fall asleep without difficulty and supervision?
- Does your child demonstrate appropriate ways to solve a problem or deal with an upsetting situation without you?
- Does your child sleep in their own bed without difficulty?
- Does your child sleep through the night or wake up frequently? If the latter, what is the cause of the sleep disturbance?
- Does your child still show any signs of separation anxiety when they are away at daycare, attending playdates, or at school?
- Does your child view the world as a safe place or a place to be feared?
- How did your child do when they stayed unaccompanied at a grandparent’s house or another close family member’s home?
- How flexible is your child when the plan changes?
- How well is your child able to communicate their needs to someone other than you, their parent or guardian?
- How well is your child able to self-soothe or regulate their emotions without you?
“A child who demonstrates confidence in their ability to navigate new, unfamiliar spaces with a curious attitude while being able to follow directives is a positive sign of readiness,” Snell says. Conversely, a child who consistently wanders off ignores directives is startled by unfamiliar surroundings or is not yet able to utilize coping mechanisms to self-soothe probably isn’t ready.
In cases where a sleepover is extremely daunting for your child, Romano suggests starting with small trips during the day to the home of someone you trust.
She also adds that there’s a narrow line between catering to your child’s anxiety—which would prevent your child from developing the skill set needed to work through said anxiety—and gently nudging your child to tolerate something outside of their comfort zone. However small the step forward is, Romano urges that you praise your child for their efforts.
“If these attempts are successful, then gradually increase the time away and perhaps involve another close household you trust to do a test run,” says Romano. “This will keep them moving forward with a sense of mastery and it will build a level of trust between you and your child.”
Discuss What Can Be Expected
When sleeping anywhere—whether it’s at a relative’s home, a schoolmate’s house, or a multi-day stay at a camp—it’s important to talk your child through what they might expect while away. If it’s a family member’s home or a sleepover with a group, converse with the person who’s hosting about what’s on the docket for the evening and relay those details to your child.
If it’s a camp, discuss what that entails, from food to lodging to bathrooms to activities. Simply knowing what they’re walking into can help ease your child’s (and your own) mind.
One of the scariest parts of having your child stay away from home for the first time is not being able to shield them from potential dangers. The next best thing to actually being there with them yourself is teaching your child how to create and enforce personal boundaries. It’s also wise to devise action plans in case of something happens or goes wrong.
“By the age of four years old, your child should be taught the difference between ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch.’ If you are unsure of how to initiate or have this conversation with your child about inappropriate touching, have their pediatrician do so, but be present during the conversation so the child knows they can talk openly to you about this as well,” Snell advises.
Your child should have their name, phone number, and address memorized (or at least written down and on their person) any time they are away from home. It’s also wise to teach them about how to call 911 and what instances warrant such a call.
Pack a Tangible Comfort Item
It may seem silly, but having something familiar to hold onto can bring comfort to your child in an otherwise unfamiliar space. This can be anything from a favorite toy or blanket to pictures.
“If your child is open to going overnight but is nervous and uneasy about being away from you, I recommend laminating five to six of your child’s favorite photos and putting them on a ring. Every time your child sleeps away they will have this comforting reminder of your love,” Snell says. “You can also give your child a card that they can read while away, or a simple drawing they can look at.”
Normalize Their Feelings of Uneasiness
If you feel your child is ready to experience their first night away—but you know they’re experiencing understandable feelings of uneasiness due to this being a new experience—make sure to normalize those feelings. Do not minimize them.
“Set aside some time to talk with your child about their feelings and give your undivided attention,” Snell says. “Engaging your child in this type of conversation is important because it is promoting both social and emotional development.” A great time to do this is while packing for the night (or days) away.
If you sense nervousness but your child isn’t vocalizing their fears, you can check by simply asking, “How are you feeling today about staying away?” You might notice there’s a fluctuation in their emotion—one minute they may be excited and an hour later fearful. Feelings aren’t constant, and that’s OK, too.
With that said, if each day your child experiences unwavering anxiety, fear, or major hesitation, it’s probably wise to re-think their readiness.
Let Them Know it’s OK to Return Home
If your child is generally feeling good about being away but still has hesitations, make sure they know that it’s OK for them to return home if they need or want to. In fact, it’s ideal to come up with an action plan so they feel confident they have an “out” if necessary.
“Your child should not feel pressured by you or like a nuisance if at some point they realize they are not ready to stay the night and want to come home,” Snell says.
In some scenarios, you may want to come up with a pact to help them work through those early minutes of anxiety they might feel after being dropped off. For example, you might ask your child to wait it out for one or two hours when staying overnight or wait one or two days when going to a week-long summer camp. This will give them time to warm up to the idea and they might even realize how much fun it can be.