He gets homesick on a sleep-over

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  July 7, 2009 06:00 AM

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With school out, kids are more likely to be sleeping some place other than home. Ensuring success takes more than packing a sleeping bag and toothbrush.

Hi Barbara,

My 9-year-old son has been on many sleep-away trips with friends and family, and a pattern has seemed to emerge. Each time, on the first night around bedtime, he gets very weepy and upset and wants to come home. This has even happened when he was on a trip with my husband - he wanted to be with me. I can generally calm him down over the phone, and he's always fine the next day and subsequent nights. I'd like to help him not have a miserable first night, however. I thought about asking him for ideas of things that might help, but I was hoping you might have some suggestions, particularly in case he doesn't have any ideas.

From: AMom, Melrose

Hi AMom,
I like your idea of engaging him in brainstorming; some parents don’t want to address the issue head on for fear that it will create homesickness rather than alleviate it. In fact, what you’re doing is giving him coping skills and teaching him how to problem-solve. So next time he's asked to sleep out, ask him what it is that happens that makes him sad. What does he think about? What makes him feel sad?

Here are some other ways to help him:

(1) Sometime when it’s not bedtime, ask him to close his eyes and imagine being in his bed at home. What does he see from his bed before you turn out the light? What about after? A night light? A book shelf? What does he hear? Your voices? Sounds from the TV? The whir of a fan? And what does it feel like for him to be in his bed? Cozy? Is there a blanket he particularly likes to wrap himself in? A favorite pillow? Get him to be as vivid and sensory as possible. At 9, he’s old enough to carry these images in his mind. Suggest that he try that on a sleep-over.

(2) Make it clear that you don’t mind being called and that it’s even OK for him to come home if he has to. But also ask him how he feels the next morning, when he wakes up and knows he’s been successful.

(3) The first time at a new location can be as if this is the first sleep-over, ever. There may be something specific he worries about, like needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, or worrying someone will forget to leave a night light on. Maybe there’s a pet in the family and he doesn’t know where it sleeps. Mapping these things out ahead of time – and it could be a specific different trigger each time – gives him a way to cope. If he’s got an allergy or a history of wetting the bed, these are obvious concerns that need to be addressed. And if you, the mom, are the one who always deals with it, perhaps he doesn’t feel sure that dad will know what to do.

(4) Encourage him to take something from home to serve as a transitional object, a pillow case or a family photo.

(5) Tell him, “Since I won’t be there to kiss you good night, I’m going to kiss you twice when I drop you off. One to say goodbye and one you can save for bedtime.”

Keep in mind that a successful sleep-over is an important milestone, a way for a child to test independence and cement friendships, as well as to satisfy a sense of curiosity about how other people live. But sleeping away from home is an intimate thing to do and no child should be pushed to do it, even if he's done it before.

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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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