How to make age gaps between siblings work

Helen O’Callaghan gets some advice on managing siblings    

Whether by choice or fate, there’s a big age gap between your children. It feels like they’re each an only child.

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to family planning and sibling spacing and parents will work out the dynamics within their own family structure, clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune says (www.solamh.com).

In fact, she sees a lot of advantages to age gaps of more than a few years: sibling rivalry is less likely because children are at such different developmental stages they’re unlikely to be in competition. “The older child may see themselves as a mentor of the younger rather than a competitor with them.”

An older child may also be happy to help out. “Involving them in a healthy, balanced way is beneficial for both children,” says Fortune. But she warns against depending upon them for help. “It’s not their job to co-parent with you, nor are they babysitter on tap.”

How to make age gaps between siblings work

An older child will have had your attention for longer and may feel more secure within themselves and better able to cope with a new arrival. “The younger child will learn from the older and may acquire developmental milestones quicker. Ensure you treat both children in ways appropriate to their individual developmental stages and aren’t expecting either to do more than they can/should,” advises Fortune.

She warns, however, that — with significant sibling age gaps — mums and dads have to manage simultaneously parenting children at very different developmental stages. “This is challenging. The needs of the children are different, satisfying all on something like a family outing is difficult.”

As an example, she says it may be hard for parents to support a teen through the risk-taking phase while also managing the needs of a toddler.

“Both developmental phases are demanding on parents — both young child and adolescent require a lot of hands-on parenting through these stages. Your older child still needs you to keep your parenting eye on them even when you’re distracted by demands of younger child.”

When a baby arrives, it may temporarily rock the boat of older siblings — they’ve grown used to the family dynamics. Fortune suggests telling stories to the older child(ren) of how you used to do with them all of the things they now see you doing with the younger child. “They may not remember the experience themselves and this will help them feel you’re not giving the younger child something you didn’t also give to them. It can help avoid jealousy over loss of your undivided attention.”

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