04/28/2014 05:39 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

The Dark Side of Teen Sleepovers

As spring turns to summer, high school prom season is in full swing, and there are inevitably more parents hosting slumber parties and sending their kids to sleepovers. I was speaking last week at a book event for my book The Myth of the Perfect Girl, when one parent asked me what I thought about sleepovers. A lively discussion ensued.

The topic of sleepovers (and slumber parties) seems to be one of those issues in parenting where most have an opinion, and no opinion is necessarily right or wrong. A few years ago, Chicago Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens wrote a Sleepover Survival Guide, and in her New York Times article "Ensuring Domestic Tranquility at Sleepovers" physician Perri Klass notes, "The sleepover, along with its cousin the slumber party, has apparently become an essential part of childhood, for boys as well as for girls."

One of the moms at the book event last week offered her solution of the late-over, where her daughter stays at a friend's house until just before bedtime, and is picked up right in time to go home and sleep in her own bed. The late-over (can we coin this term?) is simple and genius in so many ways. I do realize it means having to pick up your child at 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. or later depending on your child's age, I find that on the whole, everyone's next few days might be better because of it.

If you are thinking about the sleepover versus late-over versus other late night social event situations, I encourage you to consider:

The term sleepover is such a misnomer -- even with the best of intentions, very little quality sleep happens. I can generally tell when children (especially teenagers) have been to a sleepover because they are generally irritable, grumpy, and sleep-deprived. One high school freshman girl I work with notes that while she likes the social aspect of sleepovers, she admits generally feeling cranky the next day because she never gets enough quality sleep. Even when parents insist that they will make sure kids actually get to sleep, it's not like they have a baby monitor on the situation. The key here, too, is quality sleep. The combination of sleeping somewhere new coupled with young people who distract one another typically means the morning and day after can become an emotional disaster.

Terrible ideas become brighter to bored children in the middle of the night.
I have more than a few stories of children who decided to do something relatively dumb in the middle of the night that they probably wouldn't have considered with the same enthusiasm in broad daylight. Groupthink coupled with exhaustion-induced delusion (and maybe sugar-ladden giddiness) causes some to make really impulsive and potentially dangerous decisions. A few years ago, three girls who live near my office decided to sneak out and try to get to a male classmate's home, even though getting there involved walking along the highway. Fortunately, highway patrol officers found the girls walking barefoot along the side of the road around 2:00 a.m. and called their parents. It's 2:00 a.m., do you know where your kids are? Walking barefoot along the highway to some eighth grade boy's house they deemed to be "super cute."

Social media + Sleepover = Recipe for disaster. If I encourage one major sleepover rule, it's that there should be no access to social media. If kids are coming together to hang out, they should focus on interacting with one another rather than trying to tweet, text, post pictures of themselves on Instagram, send Snapchats, watch YouTube videos or start Rumrs. When social media gets involved, I often find that some type of meanness -- either intentional or unintentional -- ensues. Kids can post all about the sleepover while it is going on can make others who are not there feel excluded. Worse, kids -- and yes, it's mostly girls we are talking about here -- can turn on one of the sleepover guests and isolate her with maneuvering that would make the Mean Girls blush.

The morning after is generally not pretty. Kids are exhausted from sleeping in a strange place (or not sleeping at all), and people have different morning habits. If you are planning to send your child to a sleepover, make sure he or she has ample time the next day to rest and recover -- perhaps take a nap, have an easy afternoon, etc.

Post-prom co-ed sleepovers set up unnecessary expectations. More and more parents host post-prom, co-ed sleepovers in attempts to thwart late night driving and other potential issues. But the flurry around prom, which in this day of group dates and online communication is some teens' first formal in-person date, can set up overwhelming wedding-day type expectations. Those expectations require a set of social skill level to go along with that sort of engagement that is often not yet present. Encouraging prom to become an overnight affair can only heighten those expectations for all involved.

I understand that sleepovers and slumber parties can be fun, I am a big fan of any positive in-person social opportunities provide in our tech filled world. In truth, sleepovers can also offer a mini-vacation for both parents and kids. But while I am sure there are some kids who get are able to get eight restful hours of sleep at a friend's house, perhaps I just haven't met any of them yet. I seem to see the kids who are cranky, irritable, and annoyed because they are sleep deprived and/or something happened either during or after the sleepover that made things weird.

So, to borrow the term from a cool mom I met last week, I prefer late-overs to sleepovers. Regardless of your preference, hosting parents should have all electronics and social media devices turned off and stowed away for the duration of the event. House rules around social media use should be expressed early and often. And, surprising kids with fresh baked cookies as an excuse to check-in is never a bad idea.