It can be tough to cope with kids of different ages, while still ensuring you’re giving the right amount of attention to all of them. Clinical psychologist Michelle Nortje looks at strategies you can use.
Melanie has three children: Jeremy (11), Lila (6) and baby Joshua, who is five months old. She is currently still on maternity leave, but is dreading the month ahead, and unsure of how she will cope with all three children when she is back at work.
Her partner, Mark, was only given two weeks’ paternity leave, and with a third child, their finances are too stretched to hire a nanny. Melanie and Mark know that they will have to find new ways to meet their children’s diverse needs while still running a household and meeting the demands of their job.
This little scenario is not too far from the reality of many working parents. There is a constant juggle to manage the entirety of a family system: finances, homework, being on time for school, chores, grocery shopping, extra-murals, work deadlines and birthday parties every weekend. The list seems endless. Parents can often feel so overwhelmed that they may struggle to address each child’s unique developmental needs.
Melanie and Mark, in the short case study above, have three children who are each in very different developmental stages. When Melanie was at home, she had a bit more time to consider how each of them might need her in distinct ways. Having overarching household rules are necessary, but knowing each child’s different developmental capacities and personality is helpful. It helps you to ascertain how much support each child needs to fulfil and understand those rules and boundaries.
For example, Melanie’s newest addition Joshua, is only fiive months old. By now he is able to roll over and sit with some support. Lately he has also been having longer babbling conversations. He might be starting to try out different solid foods. Joshua is also showing lots of interest in what his parents and siblings are doing around him.
In order for Melanie and Mark to best support Joshua they need to make sure the home space is safe enough (obstacle-free from the older brother’s Lego scattered everywhere!) as he begins to learn to crawl. He also needs his caregivers to be nearby and engage with him through talking, tickling and describing the world around him. This requires Melanie and Mark to be constantly supervising and being engaged.
On the other hand, Lila is six years old and has entered a different stage of development. She is an affectionate child and is always excited for school, but she can also be quite demanding of attention and wanting her needs met immediately. She also takes quite a while to get ready in the mornings as these are complex tasks for her still. She is struggling now that Joshua is getting more of the attention, and she is no longer the ‘baby’.
Melanie and Mark are having to ensure there is a routine and consistency for Lila to still feel safe and kept in mind. She has to have rules around playtime and bedtime explained, sometimes several times! She also needs some extra help to keep organised, especially with the new stressors of ‘big school’. This requires Melanie and Mark to really be on top of reminding Lila of her new responsibilities while also being encouraging and praising her attempts.
Last, Melanie and Mark need to still keep their 11-year-old, Jeremy in mind. He is able to be a bit more independent now, but he is also feeling quite self-conscious as his body grows and his thinking becomes more complex. He wants to engage on more tricky topics about the world around him. He is also grappling with the intricacies of negotiating friendships or the budding ideas of girlfriends.
With Jeremy, Melanie and Mark need to take a completely different stance. They are supporting their son to grow up in a balanced way: with rules and some freedom and privacy to try out new thoughts or ways of being. They are also helping him to learn from his experiences and sometimes his mistakes.
As you can see, Melanie and Mark are really having to do some mental and physical gymnastics to jump between each child’s needs and trying to meet each of them them where they are at on their developmental journeys.
Here are a few tips to smooth the expected bumpy road.
- Have as much family time as possible: Having a joint space where all family members can connect and be together helps everyone to be aware of and respect each other’s unique needs. Dinner time around the table and age-appropriate games are just two suggestions.
- Let the older children participate and feel useful: Some older children enjoy feeling productive and needed within the family system. The older child may want to be included with the new baby by holding him or reading to him for a short while, while mom or dad need to get the dinner ready.
- Ensure that chores are part of the routine: With three children with unique needs a parent needs as much time as possible to get each child to school and extra-murals. One doesn’t want to waste time on the ordinary day to day tasks of bed-making, setting the dinner table, brushing teeth or getting into pyjamas. Making a chores list with pictures and instructions for each child, for each day, is a helpful strategy to remind children what needs to be done on a daily basis, without (hopefully) having to nag or remind too much. When children know they get extra time for play and togetherness if all their chores are completed, they are more likely to be co-operative.
- Don’t forget your own needs: Parents often spend so much time caring and nurturing their children that they forget about their own needs. Remember that one cannot pour from an empty cup! Take a few minutes each day, once the chaos of the evening has subsided, to have a cup of tea, read a few pages of a novel, listen to some music or have a relaxing bath. Finding the time for these simple treats may be tricky, but it is also very necessary to be able to remain present and thoughtful for one’s children.
- Where possible ask for support: Remember that there are other parents going through similar struggles and juggles. Try to arrange lift clubs, have play dates where you can have some adult conversation and the children can still play safely, cook in bulk and freeze meals to make dinner times simpler or create a schedule on the fridge so that you don’t have to remember everything that needs to happen in the week.
Being a parent is an exhausting, but rewarding experience. Don’t let the stress of being the perfect parent that meets their child’s needs 100% of the time get in the way of just enjoying getting to know your kids and, oftentimes, learning from them.