Ah, young love. The romantic lives of tweens and early teens make us think of hand-holding, nervous kisses, and awkward flirting. It’s just so darn cute. But that cuteness totally crashes down when the happy couple asks to have a sleepover.
On social media, parents are asking for help dealing with their young teens’ requests to have a boyfriend or girlfriend sleep over. These stressed-out parents are crying to the masses, saying, “WTF, they are 14!?” and “Not sure if I’m just being old-fashioned?!”
To help parents deal, I gathered advice from Dr. Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and author of the NYT bestseller The Emotional Lives of Teenagers.
Damour points out that for issues like this, cultural context is critical.
In U.S. culture, parents do not usually offer their house as a spot for teens to get hot and heavy. This is starkly different from a place like the Netherlands, where it’s more socially acceptable for teens to be sexually active at home. Why is this all so important? Most American kids would not expect their parents to say “yes” to a romantic sleepover.
Wait… Hold The Phone!
OK, let’s start from the beginning. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that many kids are dating by age 12 – 13. Tweens and young teens in the early stages of their love lives are likely to test boundaries and seek guidance.
So, there could very well come a time in the near future when your young dating teen comes to you and says, “Mom, I’ve been in this relationship forever. Time for a sleepover.”
Before stressing about their proposal, check in with the other family. With a quick phone call, you might find great allies in the other teen’s parents or guardians. “It’s not at all unusual for a teen to lobby for permission to do something that their friend or romantic partner’s parents would never be OK with anyway,” says Damour.
There’s power in numbers. It’s a lot easier to say “no” if you have support from other adults. Damour notes that even if your answer is “yes” to the sleepover idea, you should still contact the other family to make sure they agree.
The Big Question
After your young teen asks for a sleepover with their significant other, you might want to ask a really important question: “Why?”
Give them the opportunity to share their thoughts, encouraging them to explain why they need a sleepover instead of a long hangout.
Damour says you can keep a lighthearted, supportive tone while maintaining boundaries. She suggests saying something like, “I want you to have a wonderful love life. I want you to be treated with respect and to treat your partner with respect. I also think it would be weird, and I think you might think it would be weird, if I were the one creating the space for you to try out that love life.”
Some tweens or teens may ask for a sleepover only once, but others may try to wear you down by repeating the request over and over. Damour says that if you reach an impasse, try a simple exercise: The parent summarizes their understanding of the teen’s position, and then the teen summarizes their understanding of the parent’s position. This builds empathy and gives everyone a chance to correct any mixups.
“My parents said ‘no’ — sorry, not sorry.”
If you’re dealing with a teenager, you might think (in the grand scheme of handling teenage hormones), “If they want to have sex, won’t they find a way?” It’s a valid point, but first, you may want to ask, Do they both really and truly want to have sex?
“Teenagers will sometimes ask for something they do not really want, and they are counting on the adult to say ‘no,’” Damour says.
She recalls one teenage patient whose boyfriend was pressuring her for an overnight. The girl put the question to her parents, who decided to allow it. The girl had been hoping her parents would say “no” and give her an excuse to turn down her boyfriend. She later told Damour, “I felt like I’d been fed to the wolves.”
Trust Your Instincts
It’s hard to stay strong when your child keeps pushing and pushing, but in the end, it’s important to trust your instinct. Be sure to voice your opinion clearly.
“Kids do care what parents say about risk behavior and personal choices,” Damour says. “We have research showing that when parents articulate their expectations and standards, it does actually shape teens behavior in that direction.”
Studies have found that permissive parenting, or giving in to a child’s demands, can lead to risky behavior. So, even when it feels like you’re the only one saying “no,” remember that erring on the safe side can be a good approach in the long run. Rules and expectations are actually helpful to tweens and teens.
“It’s important for kids to feel there are predictable rules in family life, even if kids don’t always agree with what the rules are,” says Damour.