My second-grader has started to get invitations for sleep-overs at friends' houses, but she's reluctant to go. The one time she did, we had to go pick her up in the middle of the night. She doesn't even want to spend a night with her grandparents. Is there a way to help, or is she just too young? Connie Blades, Riverside, Calif.
A second-grader is old enough for sleep-overs -- provided she wants to go. There are some ways to help a child work on this fear, but the child's feelings must be taken into account.
"Before I was 14, if I was made to stay over with someone, I hated it and was very angry about it," says R. G., a parent from Huntsville, Texas. "Just leave the child alone, and when she's ready, she will let you know."
Forcing a child to attend sleep-overs is likely to make matters worse, says Mary Ann Shaw, author of "Your Anxious Child" (Birchlane Press, $14.95, $20.95 Canada).
Dr. Shaw has dealt with many similar cases in her private practice as a child psychologist in Dallas. This is a form of separation anxiety, and what Dr. Shaw often finds is that the child's anxiety comes more from worrying about what is happening back home while she's away than from fear of what will happen to her in a strange place.
Dr. Shaw's "first question is whether something has changed in the environment of her nest that makes it difficult to leave. Is there a new baby? A loss? A divorce? Are mom and dad fighting a lot?" If parents ignore the problem, Dr. Shaw says, the girl will probably outgrow it on her own. That's what one reader from Buffalo, N.Y., found.
"My daughter did not stay at anyone's house until she was 10, and now she wants to go on the train by herself to visit," says Sandy, who did not give a last name. "Be supportive, and the time will come for everything."
Whether the girl gets interested in overcoming her fear will have a lot to do with how big a part sleep-overs play in her social landscape. If all of her friends are attending sleep-over birthday parties, her hesitancy could lead to social isolation, Dr. Shaw says.
If the child wants to work on the problem, Dr. Shaw advises arranging opportunities to do so in small steps. If the child ends up having to come home, be supportive rather than shaming or embarrassing her.
"It's like building up an exercise program," she says. "Send some pictures of home in her knapsack and even a favorite stuffed animal. Have her stay for part of the evening with a good friend or grandparents, gradually building up the time until she can stay all night."
One parent from Williamsville, N.Y., whose 5- and 8-year-old daughters are both reluctant to sleep away, has found this approach to be the best.
"We have found that the best thing is to set up the pajama parties to end at 10 or 10: 30 at night," Joanne Kowalski says. "This is usually the time they'd stop giggling and go to sleep anyhow, and then the parents come and they go home."
A final suggestion that may help, Dr. Shaw says, is to use the same baby sitter on a regular basis so that the child grows accustomed to being away from her parents at night.
"That way you leave the child instead of the child leaving you," she says.
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Pub Date: 3/10/96