How parents of LGBTQ tweens and teens are navigating sleepovers
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How parents of LGBTQ tweens and teens are navigating sleepovers

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Isabella Garner helps make her birthday cake with her mother, Katie Garner, on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020 at their Oak Park home. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

There was just one rule for Katie Garner’s three children when it came to sleepovers: They were all single gender (her sons, 8 and 11, only invited boys and her daughter, 14, only invited girls).

But that was before Garner’s daughter, Isabella, came out as a lesbian, and Garner had to figure out if her sleepover rule was still relevant.

“There’s a lot of communication that needs to go on regarding our expectations — and even figuring out our expectations — as well as knowing what the other person’s parents expect,” Garner said. “It doesn’t seem right to have my daughter have people she could be attracted to in her bedroom overnight,” Garner said.

Sleepovers have long been a rite of passage for tweens and teens: those Saturday nights when groups of boys or groups of girls stay up late to watch movies, eat pizza and gossip.

But today, as fewer kids are identifying as exclusively heterosexual, some parents are questioning what to do about those gatherings.

A recent study by trend forecasting agency J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group found that just 48% of 13- to 20-year-olds are identifying as exclusively heterosexual, compared with 65% of millennials.

Times have changed. Should we be rethinking the traditional sleepover?

“As a psychotherapist who works with a lot of children who are gay, I have gotten this question multiple times from parents,” said Courtney Glashow, licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist at Anchor Therapy in New Jersey.

Typically, there’s a shift to single-gender sleepovers when children are over the age of 6 as they start to mature, learn more about bodies and become curious.

Usually, a child will recognize that they are LGBTQ around the age of puberty, Glashow said.

So should this affect the sleepover format?

Sexual orientation should be a consideration when planning a sleepover, especially if you don’t typically allow your child to have sleepovers with someone of the opposite gender, said Cath Hakanson, a sex educator and founder of Sex Ed Rescue.

Quite a few parents have discovered after the fact that the best friend who is always sleeping over is actually a girl or a boyfriend, Hakanson said.

Before the sleepover, Hakanson suggests speaking with your child, discussing whether the friend coming to the sleepover is one whom they’re attracted to; then, talking over your family rules about this.

These rules should remain consistent regardless of sexual orientation, said Kristopher Wells, associate professor of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at MacEwan University in Alberta, Canada.

For example, if your house has a no public display of affection rule, make sure it applies equally, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“If it is not equally applied, you might be sending the subtle message that being heterosexual or cisgender is the only or more valued identity accepted in your home,” Wells said.

When you’re creating these rules, ask your child and the guests what would make them feel most comfortable. They will often tell you what makes them feel supported and valued.

It’s important not to make assumptions about anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity based on biological assumptions or outdated stereotypes, Wells said.

If you or your children aren’t comfortable with same or different gender sleepovers, you can suggest daytime visits or other arrangements, he said.

Ultimately, the kids should be allowed to choose who is invited to their sleepovers, but parents should be aware of all the extenuating circumstances. Once kids hit puberty and their sexual feelings start to awaken, it’s important to be mindful that sleepovers — as well as unsupervised daytime visits — can become an opportunity for sexual exploration, Hakanson said.

Holly Billinghurst is a parent with a 13-year-old pansexual daughter and a 14-year-old transsexual, bisexual son.

At one point, Billinghurst’s son was dating her daughter’s friend. Billinghurst said that her children are allowed to have sleepovers with anyone they choose — including their love interests — but if they’re dating the person who is sleeping over, then they can’t share the bedroom. And as a general rule, the bedroom doors stay open.

Kate Collins also is a parent of LGBT teens.

She also allows them to have sleepovers with anyone they choose, and they’ve chosen to have coed and same-sex sleepovers.

“I think it’s important for adolescents to have a safe environment to experiment, but also to teach them that dating is not just about sex,” Collins said. “Simply having everybody at friends’ sleepovers reminds teenagers that there are lots of fun activities you can do.”

And while parents should talk to their own children about sex and sexual orientation, they should never out their child — even when it relates to the sleepover, Glashow said.

“Remember, just because your daughter is attracted to girls, it does not mean she’s attracted to the girls she’s having a sleepover with,” Glashow said.

She recommends that each child has his or her own sleeping arrangements: separate sleeping bag, separate air mattress.

“Parents need to know safety is being addressed, so a list of rules, boundaries, expectations and consequences is normally more beneficial for parents permitting their child or teen to attend a slumber party than knowing your child or teen’s LGBTQ status,” said Susan Harrington, licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist.

If kids follow the safety rules regardless of gender or sexual orientation, then the sleepover should go smoothly.

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