Slumber parties have never been for the faint of heart, but a slumber party in the age of texting and tweeting is a veritable contact sport.
Which isn't to say they should be avoided altogether. But if you want to escape emotional bloodshed, you'll approach them with equal parts caution and strategy.
"I don't think the goofy stuff is going on anymore," says clinical psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of "Trust Me, Mom — Everyone Else Is Going!" (Penguin, $15). "It's much more emotional trickery and other hurtful stuff. Short-sheeting the bed is the least of it."
We turned to some experts for advice on surviving a sleepover, whether you're the host parent or the one sending your child into the ring.
Is your child ready?
"Some kids might be ready at 8; other kids might be ready never," says Cohen-Sandler. "The younger the child, the smaller the group should be. Maybe what we're calling a 'party' at age 9 is three girls. By 12, a party is six girls.”
To determine whether your child is ready — to attend or host — Cohen-Sandler says to consider whether he or she has had other sleep-away experiences with cousins or other family members, how your child's friends interact as a group and how your child responds to new experiences.
"Easygoing kids who can roll with the punches are better candidates for a sleepover," she says. "For kids who tend to be rigid or controlling or anxious, a sleepover might be too much to manage simply because they can't control everything.
"Girls, especially, want everyone to be happy, and it gets to be too much by 10 o'clock at night to worry about."
Margaret Blythe, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, says the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't offer specific guidelines for an appropriate slumber-party age.
She urges parents to do their research before letting children of any age attend an all-nighter.
"The mandate to know your child's friends and their families and their neighborhoods and their policies certainly applies in every instance, and especially sleepovers," Blythe says.
Who's in charge?
If your child is invited to sleep over with a family you don't know, don't be shy about prodding.
"Call up the parents and say, 'Thank you so much for the invitation. I'm wondering what your plan is for the party. What are the activities? Will any movies be shown? What are the rules going to be?'" says Cohen-Sandler.
If your child is hosting, be sure you lay down ground rules early.
"What time bedtime is, who sleeps where, what's completely off-limits," says Cohen-Sandler. "Make it clear that everybody has to treat each other nicely and respectfully, and if not, you're going to call the parents. Done.”
When you're setting the guidelines, worry less about how much sleep they'll get and more about the potential for hurt feelings.
"Slumber parties have a higher than average potential for drama, if not disaster," says Cohen-Sandler. "All it takes is one person in a group, and things can tip really easily. All these factions and alliances form.”
Two rules will go a long way in preventing slumber-party disasters:
Rule No. 1: Ask the kids to remain together at all times.
"You don't want two girls going off to a bedroom having some private tete-a-tete and making the other girls feel threatened," says Cohen-Sandler. "As the evening goes on, kids get tired and start feeling more vulnerable, homesick, insecure. That's what leads to alliances and meanness and exclusion.”
Rule No. 2: Check all cell phones at the door.
"Technology is making it so much easier for kids to be rotten," says Cohen-Sandler. "They're doing things like texting other kids who weren't invited to the party, stirring up trouble, starting rumors. Taking and sending pictures. You can imagine at a slumber party what kind of pictures can be taken.”
And kids who normally wouldn't tease or bully can fall victim to groupthink.
"Group mentality can loosen inhibitions," says Cohen-Sandler.
Keep the cell phones with you, and tell the kids to grab you if they need to call their parents, she advises.
Now, the fun:
All that said, slumber parties can be fun and memorable experiences.
Family coach Sue Kirchner, founder of chocolatecakemoments.com, an online guide to child-friendly activities and products, suggests planning two or three group activities, a movie and plenty of snacks.
For girls, Kirchner suggests a spa theme: Buy Epsom salts and lavender oil and let them make bath salts. Do mud masks and cucumber eye patches.
"You can play spin the nail polish, where the girls sit in a circle and spin different nail polish bottles," says Kirchner. "When the bottle points at you, you have to paint a fingernail or toenail that color. You end up with a rainbow effect on your hands and toes.”
Boys and girls both enjoy karaoke and Wii marathons, says Kirchner.
Craft activities are a no-brainer.
"You can buy inexpensive white pillowcases and have the kids decorate them with fabric markers," Kirchner suggests. "Everyone can sign the back.
"You've got these kids for a long time — longer than a normal birthday party," says Kirchner. "You have to keep them amused, (keep them) respectful of the different house rules, feed them.
"But (slumber parties) can also really be a lot of fun, and that's why kids love them so much.”
THE GREAT INVITATION DILEMMA
Some schools have guidelines that say if you're distributing invitations at school, you have to invite the entire class. An impossible feat for a sleepover, of course.
Clinical psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler offers the following tips:
Think of a sleepover as you would a play date. "If you have a few girls over for an afternoon to go sledding, it's no different than having a few girls over for a sleepover. You're not inviting half the class.”
Always deliver invitations outside of school, regardless of the type of party you're throwing. "That's just common sense and decency.”
If you invite more than half the class to an event, invite the whole class. "Excluding one or two kids is just cruel.”