Chances are by the time your child is 11 or 12, sleepovers have become a semi-regular weekend activity. But drama runs high at this age, so if your house has become the "fun" house, stock some extra pillows and blankets, grab some Tylenol and get a head start with these tested tips for pacing the evening, supervising activities and-dare to dream-getting some sleep.
To stave off some issues easily, give a quick tour of the house and lay out the ground rules. Let them know the "be asleep by" time. Make sure everyone knows where the bathrooms are and what rooms are off limits.
Dr. Fran Walfish, child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent (Palgrave Macmillan/St. Martin's Press, 2010), also recommends establishing a "no hurting" policy: with hands or with words. Be sure to tell the kids that no one is to be excluded and there will be no secrets.
Virtually all experts recommend having kids check their cell phones at their door.
"Sleepovers have always had the same issues: boys, homesickness, exclusion, mean party tricks and cliques," says Walfish. "But with the advance of electronics that include cell phones and texting, the challenges have risen to climactic proportions."
Cell phones and Facebook provide an easy portal for trouble. Texting can take on a sneaky and mean-spirited tone when kids text friends who aren't included, as can posting photos on their Facebook walls.
I learned this lesson the hard way when a 12-year-old had another friend take risqué pictures of her to send to her boyfriend. Those photos made their way around school and ended up in the principal's office. I only found out when a friend of mine recognized my daughter's bedroom in the background.
If the kids must keep their phones, make sure the sleepover is set up in a more public room of the house. This way you can inconspicuously pop in and out and keep an ear to what's going on.
It's impossible to plan fun activities for every sleepover, particularly the spontaneous ones. But it helps to have a few tricks up your sleeve in case the going gets rough.
If the weather is nice, set up a bonfire. Pull out the makings for s'mores or find some Jiffy Pop popcorn. Take some fun group photos. Dredge up games that require no special equipment, such as Red Rover and Ghosts in the Graveyard. Just be sure to keep them on your property; do not let the kids wander to a nearby park, especially after dusk.
If the party is inside, keep the makings of fun foods on hand: fondue, cupcakes, homemade pizza. Encourage the kids to make friendship bracelets, whip out a board game or play charades.
Pranks are a time-honored ritual of the preteen sleepover. Some of them are silly (whipped cream in the face, painting boys' nails) but sometimes they end up causing hurt feelings and border on mean.
Pranks involving photos are particularly dangerous in today's permanent Internet age.
Make sure the kids aren't doing anything where they have to call or visit people the next day to apologize (watch your toilet paper). Don't assume that crank calls are out of the question.
"At about 1 a.m., I heard a bit of giggling in the basement along with a dial tone on speaker phone," remembers Vince Lo Bianco of Downers Grove, parent of two preteen daughters. "I discovered that the girls were prank-calling our neighbor."
Sleepovers are a part of most preteens' social lives, boys or girls. Figure out ahead of time what your expectations are and communicate them to the kids and their friends. They'll respect you and be more likely to listen if you've addressed potential problems upfront.
But for some, sleepovers just aren't worth it.
Cathy O'Neill, an Elmhurst mom of a 13-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, refuses to allow them.
"I just don't think anything good ever comes from a sleepover," she says. "The best I can do is the 'half sleepover.' I let my son stay at someone's house until 11 and then I pick him up."
She's not alone. Many parents are just not willing to deal with the crabbiness and exhaustion that usually follow a sleepover, nor are they willing to face the potential pitfalls of preteen drama.
But others disagree.
"Kids' schedules have become so busy in recent years," says Lo Bianco. "The number of activities that they get involved in seems to rob children of their ability to just hang out with friends."
Laura Amann is a freelance writer and the mother of four living in Elmhurst.
See more of Laura's stories here.