Sleepover anxiety may be caused by bad memories of a tummy ache
By Marguerite Kelly,
Q. Our delightful, articulate and confident fifth-grader has gone to sleepovers and slumber parties since she was in the second grade, but now she’s afraid to stay overnight with her girlfriends. She doesn’t even want to stay with her grandparents unless my husband or I are with her.
Although she sometimes got homesick when she and her big brother stayed at their house for as long as two weeks, the problem really began last summer when she went to a one-week, girls-only sleep-away camp an hour from home.
It was on the first night that our daughter got sick to her stomach during dinner — which was highly unusual — but she was fine the next day and she stayed at the camp all week. She seemed happy when we picked her up and said that she had enjoyed herself. She talked about getting sick, but she didn’t dwell on it.
She has been terribly anxious about sleeping away from home ever since. If she does sleep at a girlfriend’s house, she calls us crying in the middle of the night, complaining of stomach pain, but when we pick her up, she tells us that she was afraid she would get sick to her stomach.
She also cried most of the time when she and her brother spent a few nights with her grandparents, although she didn’t get sick. Instead of picking her up, we told her that we were sure she’d be fine, partly because her grandparents had really been looking forward to it and partly because my husband and I needed a break.
We don’t care whether our daughter goes to sleepovers with friends or goes to a sleep-away camp next summer, but we do want and need for her to be comfortable with her grandparents.
How can we ease her anxiety so that these visits will be fun again?
A. A confident child can also be quite sensitive.
Your daughter may bubble over with joy most of the time — as 10-year-olds usually do — but the closer she gets to adolescence, the more her fears, her confusions and her uncertainties will pop up, and few fears are as bad as throwing up in public or even being afraid of throwing up.
The fears born of embarrassment — past, present and future — usually begin around 6 and can last a lifetime, although the cause of a fear might change. If a first-grader pees in his pants before he can get to the bathroom at school, he will be shamed by that memory for years to come. And if a 10-year-old throws up in front of some girls she has never met before, she might be afraid of throwing up in front of other girls, even her good friends.
Your daughter can overcome this fear — and any fear — more easily if you help her talk about it, because fears can’t bear to face the light of day. Be careful how you do it, though. You’ll get nowhere if you tell her that she shouldn’t be afraid, but you’ll learn a lot if you ask her to tell you what happened at that camp dinner. Did she throw up? How did the other campers react? Did they make fun of her? Did they say “ewww” and move away? Or was she simply afraid that she would throw up and that the other campers would laugh at her?
You also need to help her face this fear, bit by bit. Let her have some slumber parties and sleepovers at your house, so she can still be with her buddies. But don’t let her go to a friend’s sleepover unless you pick her up at 10:30. Just tell her that she has to get a lot of sleep because you need her help in the morning. By taking her home early — rather than waiting until she calls you in tears — you’ll be letting her save face, which is so important at 10 (and 12 and 14 and 16).
If that doesn’t work, your daughter might be one of those people who find it hard to process a bad memory, whether it’s about throwing up in public or getting shot at in a war zone. In that case, a cognitive behavioral psychotherapist might be able to use energy therapy to move this fear along.
Whatever the cause of your daughter’s fear, she needs a copy of “Understanding Myself” to help her work through it. This book, written by Mary C. Lamia and published by the American Psychological Association’s Magination Press ($15) is a handy guide for every young person.
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