Sue's mom leaned over and spoke to me sotto voce, just in case her 9-year-old was eavesdropping from the waiting room outside. "Do you really think Sue is ready for an overnight?" As a psychologist, I knew my first job was to reassure this mom, so that the anxious look on her face would be gone by send-off time. "Just remember the backup plan," I said. "And relax. It will be fine."
In counseling families of children with AD/HD, I am often asked about overnight stays with friends or relatives. Parents are eager to help their kids foster friendships, but they fear that good behavior will disappear when the sun goes down. They worry that their children will be hard to handle - a burden to the host - or that they will feel homesick or abandoned. These contingencies are certainly possible, but with the right preparation, even a fragile child can enjoy a successful overnight stay away from home. I tell the parents I counsel that there are several issues to consider:
Because they're more impulsive and less attentive to social cues, youngsters with AD/HD tend to be less mature than other kids their age. Before arranging for your child to spend the night away from home, consider whether he really is mature enough to do so. There's no specific age at which it's O.K. Many 8-year-olds do just fine, though some do better hosting other children in their own homes before venturing away from home themselves.
In determining your child's readiness for an overnight stay, consider her prior experiences. Some children are old hands at being away from home, having spent time with grandparents or aunts and uncles. Others have rarely been separated from their parents. For these kids, a gradual progression from overnights with relatives to overnights with friends is recommended.
Some children with AD/HD are outgoing and eager for adventure. Others are homebodies. If your child shows no interest in an overnight stay, don't push him. Wait until the time is right. This can be a surprisingly difficult call. Not long ago I volunteered at a weekend camp for youngsters with special needs, and I noticed campers who appeared eager at 6 p.m. but were homesick by 9 p.m., as night fell and activities ended for the evening.
The first few times your child spends the night away from home, have a backup plan - in case he gets homesick or proves to be a handful for the host. Obviously, you'll want to leave a phone number where you can be reached. You may want to make arrangements to be accessible so that you can quickly come to the rescue if necessary. In any case, make sure your child understands that you will not be disappointed or angry if she decides at 2 a.m. that it's time to come home.
It's not enough to tell the host that your child goes to bed at nine or that he likes oatmeal for breakfast. List all the particulars of your child's routines, especially those associated with bedtime. Don't assume that your child will be able to convey this information accurately. Even if her routine is altered slightly for the occasion, a host who knows the routine will find it easier to calm an anxious child or otherwise intervene.
Taking ADD medication on schedule can mean the difference between a great overnight and a disaster. If your child will need to take medication during the stay, provide the host with clear, written instructions. Mention special dietary concerns as well. And be clear about the situations in which you would like to be called. Do you expect a phone call if your child is unable to settle in for the night? If he sustains a minor injury? Better to be clear about your preferences in such matters than to leave the host guessing.
Some parents put together booklets containing all the information a host might need about their children. In addition to doctors' phone numbers and relevant medical information, the booklet might include details about a child's personality quirks, how she typically responds in various situations, and the discipline strategies that usually work best. This may sound like overkill, but parents have often told me how much their children's hosts have appreciated getting an "overnight info packet."
Finally, be sure to pack smart. In addition to toiletries, medication, pajamas, and extra clothes, include any "comfort" items that will help your child feel safe and taken care of.
The bottom line? The first overnight stay for a child with AD/HD often proves to be harder on the parents than on the child. But try not to worry, Mom and Dad. It's all part of growing up!