Recently, my newly minted teen asked me if he could have a gaming night and sleepover. After saying yes and agreeing to a maximum number of guests, I asked for names and numbers of all the parents and said I’d be making contact pre-sleepover.
As he started spilling out the names, one sounded distinctly female. Reining in my immediate mental “Hell NO,” I suggested she could instead stay until late and come back early in the morning. He (politely) said it seemed unfair that she misses out on the night of gaming fun because she is female. He noted no one was dating or interested in one another, they just all wanted to join in the gaming night.
He also raised a point I hadn’t considered – if any of the boys were into boys, would I still have the same concerns? He wasn’t trying to score points, just trying to work out the logic.
Developmentally, it’s not an unusual request
Young adults between 10-14 years of age start wanting to spend more time in mixed gender groups, according to clinical psychologist Jaimie Bloch, of Mind Movers Psychology. She says doing so is an important part of their ongoing development, helping them grow into well-rounded adults that have respectful relationships with males and females alike – both romantic and platonic.
There’s also the evolving view of gender and sexual identity at play for some parents, and many teens want to be more educated and understanding to minorities.
“There is a lot more education and information on sexual fluidity, same-sex relationships and rights," Jaimie explains of modern-day teens. "The topic is not taboo in a growing number of homes and wider communities anymore, so many teenagers feel comfortable discussing it and voicing their opinions.
But for parents, mixed sleepovers can present the fear of providing ground zero for sexual experimentation. Regardless of whether there are any romantic entanglements within the group, this is a can of worms few parents want to be responsible for. And it is a valid fear.
“Teenagers between the ages of 12 to 19 are at a developmental stage that focuses on identity, separation, sexuality and a desire for increased competence within themselves. In today's world teenagers experiment with their sexuality earlier and earlier,” says Jaimie.
Shared sleeping arrangements are a valid cause of concern for parents
It's a good time to add to The Talk
While each family will deal with such a request in the way that works for their values and their child, it is a great opportunity to show your teen you understand they are getting older and have a grown-up chat about it – whether you decide to say yes or no.
Talking through your concerns is an important discussion to have. Jaimie says teens aren’t wired to make decisions in the moment, are more prone to risky behaviours and need parental support and guidance.
“The messages we send to our teens now will impact the way they view themselves, and how they begin to develop their ability to make decisions," Jamie explains."The affirmations we project need to say, 'You are trusted, I believe you can make helpful choices, you create thoughts and ideas that are valued, and you are in control.' Essentially, we need to project our belief in them, that no matter what life throws their way they will be able to handle it, and that they can ask for our support if needed."
This doesn’t mean you have to say yes to their request by any means. But giving a blanket no without a discussion is a lost opportunity.
If you decide to say no, Jaimie suggests you focus on being a collaborative and consultative parent. “It's important that you start any discussion with the intention that neither you or your child is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Successful conflict resolution involves both parties feeling heard and comfortable with the outcome. Therefore, focus on your teen being comfortable with the decision reached.”
What if you decide to say yes?
Should you decide to give a mixed gender sleepover the green light, Jaimie recommends setting good boundaries.
1. Making it clear what the expectations are for the day/night e.g., where people will sleep, what time they will go to bed, who will be supervising and how.
2. Be present at the event.
3. Limit numbers.
4. Offer advice and support ahead of time for potential tricky situations - teenagers have not developed their prefrontal cortex, this makes it hard for them to make decisions in the moment.
5. Know that cross-sex friendships are important for healthy development and understanding for relationships later on in life. Every experience your teenager has is an opportunity to learn more about who they are and what they stand for.
What happened after I said yes?
In my son's case, the way our household is set up, the level of supervision we provide and through knowing our kids and their friends well, agreeing to a trial was the right answer for us. The night went without issue, though I did provide far more supervision than I usually would – not because they gave me a reason to, rather as a protective step to appease myself and other parents.I can also say I’m glad tour kids are getting to the age where sleepovers are not the done thing!
But regardless of whether a yes or no is right for your family and your teen, this is a confronting question that can lead to a really rewarding outcome – you and your teen learning how to communicate through the stickiest of situations.