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COED SLEEPOVERS:The experts weigh in

The next time your teenagers tell you their friends are all sleeping over at someone's house, ask who they mean by "friends”. You may be surprised to learn that both boys and girls are included. Single gender overnights do still take place, but coed sleepovers have become a part of today's teen culture. A smattering of articles have documented this nationwide phenomenon over the past few years, but many of us are unsure what to make of it. While mixed sex friendships are considered healthy, is it just a group of friends spending the night together, or is it actually more of a setup for possible substance abuse and the more relaxed behavior that follows? Conversations with local professionals who work with teens reveal that coed sleepovers are usually less innocent than parents are led to believe. They note that the coed college culture seems to be filtering down to younger teens, just as so many other things seem to be starting younger these days. Lorrain Perry, certified social worker at Pelham Guidance Counsel and partner in a White Plains private practice, says that although the coed sleepover can sometimes truly be just friends getting together, "just friends" may carry a different meaning for teenagers. Jill Wellenbach, Student Assistance Counselor in the Eastchester school district, elaborates on teenage opposite sex friendships. Some kids involved in coed sleepovers are "exploring feeling more comfortable with the opposite sex,” she says, as opposed to wanting to explore sex. But others are using alcohol or drugs "as social lubricants to get them into sex." Once they step over the line of friendship, she continues, "they can't go back to just being friends." Coed sleepovers make it all much easier to happen. Kids' explanations for coed sleepovers include: “We just want to spend time together and we hardly get to see each other during the week;” “Wouldn't you rather not worry about us being out late at night with other drunk drivers on the road?” and, “What do you think we're going to do that we haven't already done?” But, Perry warns, "Kids are wonderful at coming up with logic that can be very misleading sometimes”; she cautions that "parents shouldn't always take everything at face value and need to be willing to err on the side of caution." Taking the warning a step further, psychologist Dr. Susan Wagner, with offices in Chappaqua and Manhattan, says, "If parents go for kids' rationale about having coed sleepovers, they're pretty naive." Perry allows that certain occasions may warrant this arrangement, but with supervision (such as prom night with an early morning group activity). However she qualifies that "the more typical weekend thing at someone's house with no special occasion is more questionable," adding that "boys and girls sleeping together at the age when they are dating can be a setup... almost giving permission for things we don't really want for them." Dr. Wagner describes all-night parties in houses where parents are either away, out late or at home but too far away from the action to notice anything, as having the potential to include "lots of drinking, drugging and rooms reserved for sex... your worse fears." Roberta Roth, a certified social worker and psychotherapist based in White Plains who specializes in parenting skills, poses a fundamental question: "Is the activity sexual and inappropriate or nonsexual and appropriate?" She adds that the drinking component may very well be impossible to separate from the coed sleepover, and that kids may be staying over to gain a more unlimited approach to alcohol intake which can naturally lead to increased sexual behavior. Roth says boundaries, values and behavior modeling become ever more important in parenting in this climate of societal permissiveness. She is finding, however, that there's a tendency for many stressed and overworked parents to give in to their children, mistakenly rationalizing that the kids are safe if partying in their own house. Dr. Wagner emphasizes the importance of parents doing their jobs and not trying to be friends with their kids. "We have to accept our role as parents," she says, noting the large number of parents who seek her guidance in how to regain control over their kids. "Kids are actually stunned at the lack of structure and moral guidance" coming from their parents, she adds. Bottom line, she says her "overall opinion of the subject of sleepovers with boyfriends or opposite sex friends is that it's a bad idea unless parents are sleeping in the room!" As always, it's up to parents to remain informed about their children's lives and the people with whom they're associating. That includes their friends' parents, because how else can you gauge whether you think they're spending time in a safe place? Wellenbach allows for trusting one's own children, but asks about the other parents involved. She says that coed sleepovers are usually happening in houses without a responsible adult or where the parents may not share your values. Says Perry: "Kids look for parents who are lax, most accepting of drinking and drugging behavior, leaving them alone and maybe not even being available." While teens will always try to bend the rules, they still look to their parents for guidance. "Everyone is doing their job if parents are setting limits and kids are being rebellious," says Wellenbach. And Dr. Wagner advises, "While we might all say we know they're going to experiment, we don't have to endorse it." In the case of coed sleepovers, she adds, "There is plenty of time to get to college and deal with coed dorms."