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What "Overprotective" Moms Get Right About Sleepovers And Child Abuse

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Are slumber parties dangerous? Now that everyone in America seems to have less than six degrees of separation from the nearest sexual predator, it's hard not to look at the rash of abuses and panic about sending your kids, well, anywhere. Gymnasts, child stars and well-known actresses are among those who have come forward to state #MeToo, and of course there are so many stories that won't be reported of people abused by predators known to them and their families. These are the ones that concern me. My question, as the parent of a daughter in elementary school, is whether sleepovers are safe.

I always anticipated the day my daughter would request to have friends spend the night, but naively thought I had a couple more years before she would ask to spend the night at someone else’s house. I mean, this is the little girl who used to cling to me when I’d try to hand her over to a relative. Now, it’s as if she can’t wait to test her independence as she dashes off to school without looking back to wave goodbye, and asks if I’m actually going to stay at play dates or pick her up when she’s done. I don’t mind hosting sleepovers, as long as her friends actually sleep, but when my daughter started asking to sleep over at other people’s houses, that gave me pause.

Has our depraved society ruined nights of staying up late at a friend's house, whispering secrets, and trying out ridiculous makeup trends? Romper reached out to people who specialize in mental health and sex offenders to get a sense of what parents need to know, and whether we are all just a little too tightly wound or have a legitimate reason to be worried. The biggest takeaway was that we all need to be keyed into this topic.

Above All, Talk To Your Kids About Safety

In more than 90% of child sexual abuse cases, the child was victimized by someone they know, as reported by the Child Abuse Prevention Center. The good news, says Eliza Harrell, director of education, outreach, training and prevention for The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), is that teaching your child about appropriate touch is a powerful way to avoid abuse.

"We do know most crimes against children are [committed] by someone they know or trust, so it's not about creating fear but instead empowering children with the language to use as well as prepare who they would talk to if something did happen," Harrell explains to Romper.

The best line of defense is educating children on appropriate and inappropriate touch, and reassuring your child that you will always believe them.

Experts debate the appropriate age for children to attend a sleepover, but the short answer is: not until you've educated them.

Representative Paul Heroux (D-Massachusetts), who has written extensively on crime policy, mental health, and sex offenders, believes sleepovers are fine for kids, as long as kids are equipped with the skills required to prevent and avoid sexual abuse. For those conversations, he tells Romper, it's the earlier the better.

“Even if we were to say no more sleepovers, you would still have other situations where kids would still be with a trusted caregiver and still be vulnerable," he says. The best line of defense, he explains, is educating children on appropriate and inappropriate touch, and reassuring your child that you will always believe them if they report that something inappropriate occurred. Your kids need to know that you will support them, and that they will not be in trouble if they speak of being victimized.

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As a hyper-vigilant parent, I have frequent talks with my daughters about safe touch, and personal boundaries that no one should cross — not even myself — if it makes them uncomfortable. But I know there are more ways to engage my girls in these difficult, uncomfortable conversations. As a parent, I needed to know a) how to empower my girls to speak up if something does happen, and b) what skills I need to teach them to ensure they are not victims of sexual abuse. And I needed to know how to do this without worrying them to death.

There are numerous resources online for this, including the NCMEC KidsSmartz program, which educates families and empowers kids to practice safe behaviors. Geared toward K-5th graders, the program provides resources to encourage active and open conversations, and suggests role-playing with your kid in an age-appropriate manner. For instance, since my girls are still young, I could ask, “What would you do if or who would you talk to if something made you uncomfortable?”

KidSmartz also recommends teaching and practicing the 4 Rules of Personal Safety with children:

“It’s a way to talk about it in a positive and engaging way without the fear factor and not the stranger danger that we all grew up on,” Harrell explains. “We know these crimes, the vast majority of them, are not committed by strangers, and strangers are oftentimes the ones that can help kids.”

StopItNow.org is another organization that provides adult resources to prevent sexual abuse of children through awareness.

This doesn’t really help my leaning toward never-letting-my-girls-out-of-my-sight conundrum, but it did help me realize that sleepovers are not the main source of where sexual abuse takes place. It can happen at any time, with any trusted adult figure.

Have The Awkward Conversations

One of the tidbits of advice that stuck with me from my conversations with Heroux and Harrell is the need for active, open conversations among both children and adults. I personally would not be offended if, ahead of a sleepover, other parents asked me for a background check, or whether we have guns in the house, or for their child check in with them throughout the night, or not to help them put on their pajamas. I understand the urge to protect coming from other parents, but I myself am uncomfortable having those conversations with another parent. And that is a problem.

JanetF. Rosenzweig, executive director of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, tells Romper that open communication is the essential weapon in protecting kids from sexual abuse in her guidebook The Sex-Wise Parent. Her rules for raising sexually healthy and safe children include establishing family values, maintaining open communication, and teaching children that sexual arousal is an autonomic, reflexive response. As important, though, are offensive efforts to ensure that you are sending your kid somewhere safe. For example, she suggests you ask about the family's dress code, and find out who else will be in the house.

The other thing that we know [about] people who victimize children is they are looking for the ones whose parents don’t ask questions

These conversations might be awkward, but, she says, “If the parent doesn’t know enough about any of the adults in the house, that may be a good indication that you don’t allow your child to be there.”

When it’s time to have these uncomfortable — but important — conversations with other parents, role-playing with another parent may be the first step. Rosenzweig recommends talking in “I” statements and to make it about you and your feelings, not about any judgment that you may have about another family.

Awareness Is A Powerful Deterrent

“The other thing that we know [about] people who victimize children is they are looking for the ones whose parents don’t ask questions or don’t check in or preplan,” Harrell says. Predators typically choose vulnerable victims. So, as a crazy, protective mom, I'm doing something right.

It's not fun to have these conversations. Thinking about predators turns my stomach, and being the mom who ruins all the fun or weirds out other parents with her intrusive questions is tiring, but the bottom line from all the experts I spoke with is that we need to talk about this. With our kids, and with the parents who form our network.

When kids are equipped to understand what is and is not OK behavior, confident that they would be believed, and put in a thoroughly vetted situation, you have done a lot to keep them safe. If we are willing to have the tough conversations and conduct some oversight, then by all means, crack out the hair crimper and popcorn.

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