Helping Siblings Share a Room
An interview with Dr. Roni Cohen Leiderman
A couple years ago, when we discovered our family of four was about to become a family of five — in a 3-bedroom house — we moved our two boys into a shared room. While they love their bunk beds, and have even figured out how to take turns sleeping on top, it’s definitely challenging at times. The older one is quiet, and likes his alone time. The younger one is rambunctious, and wants to do exactly what his big brother is doing. The older one wakes up at the crack of dawn, while the younger one has trouble settling in at bedtime. I turned to Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D, for tips on how to make the situation a little bit easier — on everyone. – Amy Heinz, Using Our Words, TMC Contributor
How exactly should parents bring-up and word the subject of the kids sharing the room?
For many families, it is a natural progression for children to share a room once the youngest sibling has grown out of his crib and/or sleeping in the parents’ room. When there is a significant change of events, such as the birth of a new baby, that necessitates some room re-arranging or moving to a new home with less space, the conversation and transition may call for a more direct and longer conversation with children. The first step is to be honest and direct about the new situation. Change is often seen as a new and exciting adventure, and children usually embrace the idea of sharing space with their siblings. Once discussed, ask your children for suggestions about their rooms. What color should we paint the walls? Should we put the beds on the wall with the windows or on the other side? Let’s make pictures and decorate. The list goes on and on — the key is to include everyone in the decision-making where the children can, in fact, have input and choices.
When little kids (age 3-6) share a room, what are things to consider when organizing the space? Is it important that they each have their own space in that room?
Every child is different, which means every sibling relationship is different. As a parent, you need to be as reflective as possible — to be a good listener, and take in what matters most to your child. Some children will feel it’s important to have their own bookshelf or closet space. Others won’t care at all, and raising the question will suddenly make an issue out of something they hadn’t considered. Be careful, and avoid playing “referee.” Give your children the space to work out differences and learn about cooperation with age-appropriate support as needed.
Since children in the 3-to-6-year-old age range aren’t great at clean up or organization—their brains just aren’t wired for it yet—they may not maintain their own space anyway. A great result of this is that when kids with different play skills and interests combine toys—like a princess castle and trucks, for instance—some of the most beautiful, deep quality play results.
Either way, make the bedroom minimalist, not crowded. When the space suddenly has two times the number of toys, books, etc., kids can’t find what’s most important to them and that causes frustration. Keep a small number of special toys in the bedroom and set up a more expansive play space in another room — like a corner of the living or dining room, if possible.
How do we guide our kids to share and be thoughtful about space when sharing a bedroom?
We want to teach our children to be thoughtful and kind. It’s not just about sharing a bedroom, it’s about learning life skills. Since kids’ social skills are still developing, and sharing is a concept they’re still learning, you want to be cued in to your child. They can be fine cooperating one moment, then having a meltdown the next.
As a parent, you want to be reflective and empathetic. Model thoughtful behavior. Talk them through positive ways to handle conflict. “Can we work together on sharing this, or should we take it out of the room for now?” Making comments like, “You were sad when Jonathan took your truck away. Let’s let him know how you feel,” go a long way in teaching social skills and opening communication in your family.
The great thing about sharing a room is that children will, in fact, practice and learn good skills through life experiences. This is special time your children will have together. They will be encouraged to learn to work through conflict by sharing their room, varied experiences, and day-to-day challenges and triumphs. I once had a very insightful child tell me, “The reason I fight with my sister is because it’s teaching me to be a good friend.” Words well spoken!
When conflict heats up and the children need a break from one another, what’s the best way to handle it if they share a bedroom?
Ideally, a child’s bedroom should be a sacred place and not a room used for discipline. And let’s face it, when you send one child in, it suddenly becomes the place the other sibling wants to go too.
When you’re in a disagreement with your partner, you wouldn’t say, “Go to your room.” You might say, “It seems like you need space. Why don’t you go for a jog or watch TV.” For a child, it might be drawing, or playing with a special toy. Children, more so than adults, need support and direction when working out conflict. Children do not typically go to time-out and think about what they have done. It is also challenging to decide which child was at fault when someone ends up hurt or crying. Again, letting children work out their differences works best, when possible. Remember that positive discipline is about teaching, not punishing.
In small houses, giving kids their own space can be a challenge. Do your best to allow your children to engage in activities that they enjoy doing on their own. For instance, set one child up with an art project, and take the other on your bed to read a story. Give each of them a “special time” with you each day.
What should parents consider when the siblings have different temperaments?
Children display a range of personalities and temperaments. The early riser versus the late riser. The chatty child versus the quiet one. My calm, quiet grandson looked at his outgoing, active sister the other day and told me, “This is what I live with. Every. Single. Day.” Knowing that even young children sense these differences, respect their feelings while supporting your children to find strategies that work.
Bedtime offers its own set of challenges. One child may be ready for sleep and require a quiet, dark room while his brother likes the light on with soothing music playing. Consider staggering bed times, think about giving one of your children a small penlight and a book to read in bed. If one is an early riser, and your children can read numbers, have a clock in the room with a large display as a prompt as to what time it’s okay to wake their sibling. Offer alternatives to getting out of bed before 6:30am, like reading a book or playing with a special toy.
It all takes practice and time for your children — and for you — to discover what works and what doesn’t. Since children learn through play, have pretend bedtimes and wake-up times. “Let’s pretend it’s bed time right now. Claire wants to go to sleep. Josh, what can you do? Is that quiet enough?” Or “Claire is still asleep, and you just woke up. The clock says what? It’s still 6, so Josh, what can you do while you stay in bed?” At this young age, understand that children do not have the same internal controls as adults, and may find it hard to resist the temptation to wake up a sleeping sister to play. Unless it is a major issue, don’t make it one!
How can kids of different sexes or interests express themselves in a shared room?
As children get older, it may be more challenging for brothers and sisters to share a room. You can get creative about ways to divide the room if appropriate and of value. You can literally hang a curtain in the middle of a room to divide it. You can encourage each child to decorate and even paint their side with their own favorite colors and designs. For young children it isn’t typically an issue for sisters and brothers to share a space. Usually, there is much fun, giggling and play to be shared which supersedes most issues and challenges.
Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D. is an educator, author, speaker and consultant in the fields of child development, family relationships, work/family issues, parenting, and autism. She currently serves as the Dean of the Mailman Segal Center for Human Development at Nova Southeastern University (NSU). Under her leadership, the center has grown to be one of the nation’s largest multidisciplinary demonstration and professional training center in the field.
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