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You're at work and the phone rings. It's your 16-year-old daughter calling to tell you that she has a school project to work on with her friend Kelsey and they need to have a sleepover to get their work done. And, of course, she needs an answer right away because Kelsey's dad is on the way to pick them up.
What I didn't mention is that you're also a divorced parent, juggling which days you have your daughter and which days she's with her dad. Add in a sleepover, and when do you get time to just be with your child?
In divorced families, it's easy for routines to get thrown off as the kids go back and forth between households. Each parent is likely to have different rules and schedules. And with teens, the need for independence and social time is growing. Sleepovers add another wrinkle.
A lot of kids don't even want to get in touch with what it feels like to be with only mom or only dad, so they run away from it.
Allison Sheen, a marriage and family therapist at the Family Resource Counseling Center in Los Angeles, is seeing a trend in her practice of kids requesting lots of sleepovers and parents getting frustrated. In situations where parents are divorced, the issue becomes more complicated.
"When I grew up, the only time you had a sleepover was on a special occasion or a weekend," Sheen says. "What I'm finding nowadays is that sleepovers are happening during school days."
In fact, the requests for sleepovers multiply as kids of divorced or separated parents increasingly seek out time with friends to combat loneliness, sadness or anxiety during a transition or over a difficult home life.
And while one parent might offer a swift "no," another parent might feel differently—ultimately giving children a murky path of mixed messages.
"Usually when a couple is married, it seems like one parent is more the dominant disciplinarian," Sheen says. "When there's a separation, the nondominant parent is put in the situation of making decisions that he or she may never have been making because they were looking to the other parent. The nondominant parent often will say 'yes' because they're just not sure."
Parents who have custody certain days of the week miss out on spending time with their kids when they're sleeping at a friend's house or have friends over. The parent doesn't want to be the bad guy by saying no, but still wants family time. Teenagers, on the other hand, push for independence and social time with friends. Many parents will say "yes" to the sleepover rather than spend the weekend with a cranky, resentful teen who is already angry about divorce.
While parents are struggling to address underlying issues of guilt over disrupting their child's life, sleepovers and time with friends gives the kids an out on dealing with their feelings, Sheen says.
"Kids are trying to stay busy with friends because when they aren't distracted, they begin to feel. They can become anxious because they don't want to feel what they're feeling," Sheen adds. "A lot of kids don't even want to get in touch with what it feels like to be with only mom or only dad, so they run away from it."
It's important, however, to have kids stick to a routine—particularly when it comes to getting enough rest.
"And the sleepovers do screw up their sleep," Sheen says. "The most important thing if a kid is struggling with something like depression is having a routine at night. They call it sleep hygiene ... turning off the electronics, not eating and not getting into conversations on the phone right before bed. But kids that are always with their friends are not having this routine. They're staying up late at night and there's no sense of being able to calm the body down."
Whether you're avoiding or remedying the situation, here are tips to help create a stable routine:
Get on the same page with your ex. Co-parenting after divorce isn't always easy, but keeping the focus on a parenting plan and setting priorities for what's important with the kids goes a long way. Sheen will sometimes work with parents to create a plan that parents can present to their teen, demonstrating a united front.
Create a comfortable home. This might seem basic, but make home a place teens want to be. As a newly single parent, getting into the habit of doing the grocery shopping and running all the errands can take some getting used to. Having food in the house, hanging art and fixing up your teen's room creates a sense of home that reinforces good routines.
Talk to someone other than your child. Some parents fall into the trap of leaning on their teenager as a confidant or decision-making partner. This can make teens want to escape more and be with their friends because this role is an uncomfortable one. Divorce is a big transition for everyone, and boundaries can get blurred. A therapist or trusted friend can be helpful as you sort out this stage of your life and deal with the heavy emotions that come with it.
Take it slow. Making changes won't happen overnight. Take small steps, and expect that you'll probably get pushback from your teen. Be prepared to hold firm. Know that everyone will need time to settle into new routines. Keep the lines of communication open with your ex as much as possible, so that your teen can't use the strategy of divide and conquer.
Put rules in place. Requiring advance notice for social plans is an example of a rule that can help in managing sleepover requests. It places a share of the responsibility on your teen's shoulders. It also takes some of the pressure off parents by cutting down on those last-minute calls and requests. For parents not used to doing the daily scheduling and disciplining, it provides a framework for saying "no" reasonably without having to mete out a heavy emotional decision.
The slippery slope of weekday sleepovers. Your teen is likely to point out just how well those weekday sleepovers went in the past, so it's ridiculous for you to say "no" this time. While he'll be firmly convinced of this logic, decide what you're comfortable with, and stay firm to the rules you and your ex have laid out.