Large or small, age gaps affect sibling relationships
Parents often wonder about whether it’s better to have their children close in age or spaced far apart. Some will say: “Oh let’s just get it over with. We’ll be finished with the diapers and bottles all at once.” So they decide to have one child right after another. Sometimes this choice is determined by their own childhood experience. Perhaps they were close in age to their own siblings and they were the best of friends. Other parents choose to have a large age span between their children so that they can give each child more individualized attention. Maybe this worked well in their own family or was something they would have preferred. Large or small, age gaps strongly affect children’s experiences. There are challenges to both circumstances.
The positives of having children close together in age is that they are ready playmates. They have similar interests and can dig in the sandbox together or gather fascinating shells at the beach. They are developing the same skills and can teach one another how to stack cubes or pump their feet on a swing. Their loving bond is often very strong.
But there are also some challenges to a smaller age difference. Studies have shown that siblings close in age are more competitive. If you have your second child when your firstborn is still very little, the two children have the same needs: to be held, fed, and have their diapers changed. They must compete for your care, and even your lap. This can make the adjustment to a second child more difficult for the older child. Sometimes the firstborn child with a younger sibling who is close in age can feel a stronger sense of loss. Not only does he feel “dethroned as the little prince” but the newborn’s needs are time consuming, urgent, and often a priority, so the firstborn must often wait on the sidelines. This experience can cause him to worry that the infant is loved more.
Sometimes parents can enhance this emotional experience by treating their two-year-old as a more grown-up child, “Please watch the baby for a minute. I need to go get a diaper.” They may easily lose sight that she still needs to be held and cuddled like a baby. Often the two are treated like twins, as well. If one is cuter or rides her tricycle first, the other can feel inadequate and less special. This not only enhances their rivalry, but also the struggle for each child to build a unique identity.
With a larger age gap the oldest sibling still has to cope with the dethronement even at the age of 6, but the larger the difference, the more nurturing he may feel toward his younger sibling. The firstborn child who is three, four, or five years older is raised as an only child with all the love focused on him for a few years, and benefits from the special attention. By the time the second child comes around he has a full life, including preschool, playdates, and activities he loves and therefore is less focused on his parents’ constant attention. This can make the adjustment to the new baby easier. He is also more self-sufficient and can play on his own, so he needs less parental involvement.
But there are some downsides to a large age difference, too. If the oldest is spaced far apart from the second child, the two children may not have many common interests and have a harder time becoming close. The older one may like playing board games and complain that she cannot play with her little brother because the younger one cannot follow the rules
In some families the oldest and the youngest can be as much as 20 years apart, and it is extremely hard for them to forge a connection. They tend to have a hard time understanding each other’s experiences and rarely spend time together. An older child who has been raised with the benefits of being an only child for a long time can also have a very tough time when he suddenly has to share the affection of his parents and his relatives.
In either case there are ways to enhance the positives and overcome the challenges.
Regardless of the age gap, you will need to help your firstborn cope with the birth of your second child and the loss of her role as the baby. Young children often worry that you had the second child to displace them because you didn’t love them anymore. You will need to explain that you decided to have another child so the older one would have a playmate at home and when they go on outings. When they grow up, the siblings will have a close relationship and someone to rely upon. Point out any successful older sibling relationships in their environment so they can see the positives that lie ahead.
Addressing your firstborn’s feelings is crucial. If your first and second children are close in age, it is helpful to tell your firstborn, “Even though you have a new little brother, you are still our baby” and give the oldest plenty of time in your arms to be the baby. When there is a large age gap you might say, “I know it’s hard for you. You were alone for a long time with Mommy and Daddy and now you have to share us with the baby. That’s hard for children. They can feel sad or angry. If you have these feelings, tell Mommy and Daddy. You can say, ‘I feel sad or I feel angry.’” Your acknowledgement of his emotions will let him know you understand him. Teaching him words to use to express himself empowers him to get your help when he needs it.
Talk about the firstborn’s experience of waiting for you. You might say, “ It’s hard to be the older child and have to wait for Mommy and Daddy. Babies have urgent needs to be fed, or changed, and they can’t wait. We had to feed you immediately when you cried too.” This helps her to understand her circumstance as an older child and to feel your support. Show her her baby pictures or videos, and point out that she received the same kind of care as the baby. This will reassure her that she is equally loved. The phrase: “We have enough love for both of our children and will love you both equally,” also comforts a first child.
If your children are close in age, it is important to assist hem in developing their individuality. You can do this by encouraging each one to find his own interests and friendships. At the same time, it is also positive to support their shared interests. For example, they might enjoy attending an art program at the museum together. If your children are very competitive, provide them with an opportunity to talk about their feelings and involve them in joint projects such as taking care of a pet hamster. Spending time alone with each, will also help diminish their rivalry.
Involve your children who are spaced further apart in each other’s lives. To bridge the gap between such children, involve your older child in your younger child’s care if he or she is willing. For example, a five-year-old might enjoy feeding her little sister. Help the two to find activities that they can do together—for instance, preparing a salad for dinner. If your older child is grown, invite her to your younger one’s school play or ask her to teach her brother how to ride a two-wheeler.
It is apparent that large and small age differences can affect how siblings feel about each other. A small age gap has the benefit of promoting closeness, but it also creates tremendous rivalry and identity problems. A larger age difference gives children more space to be individuals and have more of their parents’ attention, but it can create distance between siblings. Ultimately, it is up to the parents to make the decision about how to space their children, according to the needs of their family. But if parents provide their children with support and nurture their relationships in the ways suggested, the children can more easily overcome any of the challenges these age differences create.