Recently our 7 1/2 year old daughter, Emily, had an opportunity to have a sleepover with a friend. It would be her first one ever.
Wow, when did she get old enough for sleepovers, anyway?
I have to say that I’m not a huge fan of the idea of sleepovers that are held away from our own house, but this was with some very dear friends who we knew well and who we completely trusted with our precious child. I wasn’t nervous about her safety, but I was incredibly nervous about how she would handle such a new and different situation. Emily has Sensory Processing Disorder, a special diet and is a true creature of habit. She likes to do things a certain way and do them the same way every time. She’s not a fan of unexpected changes, and when she’s out of sync her SPD is more pronounced. It’s one thing to go to someone’s house to play for a few hours, but to spend the night? On one hand I was so crazy excited for my daughter to experience this childhood milestone, but on the other hand I had knots in my stomach just thinking about all that could go wrong.
Her entire bedtime routine kept running through my head. She doesn’t even like it when we mess it up, even if we warn her ahead of time or due to circumstances completely out of our control. Would she be able to handle skipping almost her entire routine and doing things differently? Using a different clock, not having HER reading light, brushing her teeth in a different bathroom, not hearing us read the next chapter in her bedtime story book, not doing our noggin-nose-cheek-kiss-hug routine and missing Daddy’s tucks. Would it be worth it to her for all the fun she would have, or would it trigger a meltdown?
Ahhh, the meltdowns! Exactly how do you prepare another parent without a special needs child for the meltdowns? How do you explain that they really aren’t temper tantrums? How much preparatory information do I give without making it sound like my child is a ticking time bomb? Do I even bother preparing the other parent, or do I just wait and see what happens? What if something does happen and I could have offered this mom a simple solution? If she’s whiny, her body is feeling low and needs protein. If she’s too bouncy or touchy, she’s over stimulated and needs a break or something crunchy to eat.
As Emily’s parents, we’ve learned to cope and adapt. We do our best to prepare her for new situations or changes in her routine. If we are unable to do so, we have learned the most effective ways of distraction, redirection, and getting her back in sync. Some of the fixes that we do throughout the day just come naturally to us now because we’ve done them for so long.
How do I prepare this mom to care for my child for 24 hours? How do I prepare my child for such a huge, new situation?
We ended up settling on middle ground. I explained to Emily that she would not have her regular reading light or her clock, but that I would send a travel clock with her and she could just use the overhead light in their guest room for her bedtime reading. We decided not to send all of her bedding, but chose her favorite pillow (2, actually), her favorite blanket, her soft silky “blankie”, her favorite stuffed animal, her favorite PJs (the only ones she’ll wear) and her favorite water bottle. It would be just like sleeping in a hotel, we told her – we take our favorite pillow and blanket, but the bed is new and this time we wouldn’t be there. We sent her melatonin and prayed that her regular dose would be enough to let her fall asleep. We sent clothes that she likes 99% of the time – nothing fancy, just well broken in. I also sent along 4 pairs of panties just in case. We’ve had many days fall apart over the lack of comfortable underwear, so I even told her that I didn’t care if she even changed out of the ones she had on – after all, it was one day! We told her that she might feel a little nervous, and that was normal. We didn’t want to put thoughts in her head, but we also wanted her to know that it was ok to feel that way. We reminded her that she could talk to her friend’s mom & dad if she needed anything at all, and we were only a phone call away.
I tried to keep it simple when preparing my friend as well. After all, she is a parent herself so she’s plenty experienced with kids in general, and I didn’t want to insult her intelligence by giving too many instructions. I had to remember that some things are just childish behavior and don’t necessarily need special interventions. All kids get tired. All kids get whiny. All kids get over-stimulated and out of control. I told her about Emily’s diet (dye-free, HFCS-free, & gluten-free) and knew they would be awesome at keeping her food in check. They have food intolerances themselves, so they understood completely. I sent GF mac & cheese for dinner and GF waffles for breakfast, along with other snacks. I resisted the temptation to send her with a week’s worth of food for her short 24 hour stay, and told the mom some of my favorite easy go-to foods should she need anything else.
In the end, she had a wonderful time! Emily was brave, strong and excited about her new adventure. My friend was kind, understanding, and compassionate to my daughter’s needs and wants – even when she wanted to eat her frozen waffle still frozen. It was a great match! My friend sent me a few text messages during the evening letting me know things were going well, which eased my heart a bit.
When we picked her up the next morning, my friend asked me if we ever made Emily turn off her animal noises, or if we just always allowed her to make them. Oh no! I hadn’t prepared my friend at all for the animal noises! My sweet Aspie is obsessed with animals and loves to make animal noises in general, which is not a big deal most of the time because most kids her age like to pretend to be animals from time to time. The difference is that whenever Emily is feeling nervous, scared, unhappy with a situation, or just doesn’t know how to act – she resorts to her animal talk and it can get way out of hand. It’s a social skill we work on constantly with her, and have even set rules in place for. For example, if no one else if playing animal then we only use human words to communicate. I had completely forgotten to mention it to my friend! As all the worst case scenarios were going through my head, my friend explained that she simply told Emily when it was time to turn it off, that Emily complied just fine, and she was just hoping it was ok with me that she asked her to stop.
Whew! Seems like I was worried for nothing. My little girl is growing up and learning to adapt a little at a time. She is learning that new & different can be fun instead of scary. She is learning that being brave doesn’t mean not being scared – it means pushing through the fear. I am so very proud of her! She may not be ready for week-long sleepover camps just yet, but then again, neither is Mommy!