Bridging the Age Gap Between Your Teen and Toddler

As a stepmother of two girls, one 20 and the other 14, and mother to twin 2-year-old boys, I've experienced the exasperation of trying to entertain teens and toddlers. What works for one does not necessarily work for the others, no matter how cute the toddlers or how accommodating the teens. But it's also been gratifying to learn certain coping mechanisms and hear from others just how easy it can be, with a little cooperation, flexibility, and creativity.

  • Alloy Photography/Veer

    It comes down to a simple concept: family. No matter what the age gap between your children, they're still siblings, and always will be. As Deana Linfield (mom of seven, ages 21 through 9) from Irivine, California, remembers being told by another mother of many, what's important is relations within the family; if they're solid, everything else works. With siblings, there's always someone else around -- an instant companion and an antidote to boredom.

  • OJO Images/ Veer

    Older kids like to help, so let them.

    When a new baby enters a family, particularly if it's the first one in a long time or the first time in an older child's experience, the usual response is excitement. Babies are fun and different, and shake up the family dynamic.

    Deana Linfield was always a big advocate of letting her older kids help, finding that it both occupied the older kids and made her life easier. When her youngest was a baby, her older girls helped out so much that her mother told her, "'Deana, you can't let your older kids raise Jeremy, because you're not raising him.'"

    Now that he's 9, there are many times when she's the one playing board games or ball with him, while the older kids are busy with homework or friends. But when she's trying to make dinner, they're the ones keeping him occupied.

    Arielle Altchek, a mother of four (ages 14, 12, 10 and 3) in Princeton, New Jersey, finds that now that her youngest is growing, she can leave her with her older siblings, even for an hour or two. That allows her some breathing room if she needs to drop off another child at a playdate or afterschool activity.

  • Fancy Photography/Veer

    Having a much younger sibling gives license to the older kids to be silly, and allows them to still be kids themselves, rather than their tween or teen selves.

    Mary, a human resources executive in Philadelphia with a 12-year-old daughter and 5-year-old twins, finds that her older daughter will often end up playing and participating in her 5-year-old's sibling activities.

    "Some of that is personality and chemistry," she says of her "accommodating older daughter. But it is amazing to me that she will play hide-and-seek or chase, mostly because it's still fun for her, and having them around allows her to give in to it."

    It's a similar situation for Arielle Altchek, who finds that her 10-year-old son will almost always want to play with his 3-year-old sister, and even the 14- and 12-year-old girls find their toddler sister entertaining and fun.

    "A lot of things are great because we have a younger kid," she says. "It's an advantage in many ways, this age gap, because it's exciting for the older kids."

  • Alloy Photography/ Veer

    What kind of activities can truly bridge the gap between teens and toddlers?

    Living in a city makes it easy for Mary's three children to visit museums, which have become a regular activity for her family. She finds that all of them, whatever their age, can gain something from most museums. They also spend a lot of time outdoors, where hiking is an activity that the whole family can participate in to their ability, whether walking on their own, or hitched up on Mom or Dad's back in the earlier years.

    "When the twins were two or three, I had dreams that they would take to snow skiing immediately," she tells. Instead, the toddlers would often play at the base of the mountain with one parent, while the other skied with their older daughter. Ultimately, it prepped her younger children for skiing with their parents and older sister.

    Arielle also finds that pools and the beach are family pleasers, and Deana recommends state parks and libraries, which are free and family-friendly.

  • iStockphoto

    If you're two adults caring for kids in a range of ages, take turns and divide the age groups every once in a while.

    When my husband and I are on vacation with the three younger kids, ages 14 and 2 1/2, we'll sometimes split off, one with the little kids and the other with the older. If my stepdaughter wants to do some shopping, it's not a preferred activity for the little guys, and easier without them.

    Other mothers agree. Mary says that she and her husband will be "sequential but still in the same environment," allowing them to be together, experiencing the same place but appropriate to each child's ability and attention span.

    Arielle and her husband often split the kids on weekends, with one taking their daughters to their events, while their younger son and daughter can do more with the other parent, whether at the playground or back home.

    If you do pair off for a few hours, reunite afterwards for a meal or another joint activity, where everyone can share what they just did, and enjoy being together again.

  • Corbis Photography/ Veer

    A family that eats meals together can find common ground, no matter what the ages or levels of interest.

    I grew up with three older siblings who were 12, 10, and 6 years older than me. Yet I have vivid memories of our dinners together as a family, many of which I spent under the table while their more adult conversation continued after I'd finished eating. With younger kids, it may take some time before they can participate in dinner conversation, but it doesn't mean they can't take part in the family meal.

    Arielle has her family eat meals as a group very often, even with different schedules. Now they're used to being together and hearing the give-and-take that goes on in a family conversation.

    Mary and her family, despite a busy schedule, sit down for dinner a few times a week. This often means a 4:30 p.m. snack for the kids, so they can make it to a later dinnertime, but then all five sit down to eat and talk about their days.

  • Fancy Photography/Veer

    Older kids do get special privileges, as befits their older status.

    Although Deana has always appreciated the help her older kids have given her, she recognizes when they need their own time. That's often on weekends, when they want to sleep and read, and her youngest needs attention. At that point, it's her turn and she takes over.

    Whether you've got a single older kid or one who's much younger than the rest of his siblings, downtime can be the right moment to arrange a playdate, offering your child someone his own age with whom to spend some time and a break for yourself. Mary often allows her daughter to bring along a friend on some family trips, so that she's not "outnumbered by the five-year-olds."

    "My daughter also joked that she wanted a younger brother or sister, not both," says Mary. "We're really consistent about maintaining a certain status for her in the family. She does get a bigger vote; she does have a bigger room."

    The same goes for mall time and shopping for Arielle's older daughters, while her younger kids wait at home, because they don't always have the same interests, and that's okay.The same goes for mall time and shopping for Arielle's older daughters, while her younger kids wait at home, because they don't always have the same interests, and that's okay.

  • Alexander Nicholson/Getty images

    When in doubt, go back in time to more old-fashioned pursuits and pastimes.

    In our own family, I've always found that the three Bs -- balls, bubbles, and books -- can occupy kids of any ages and interests, at any time of year. If an older child is around, she can easily spend half an hour tossing or kicking balls around with her younger siblings, or, for that matter, blowing bubbles that they love to catch. Books give an older sibling a chance to practice her reading and allow her to remember which children's books she once loved. (There's also sidewalk chalk, as an older sister can draw pictures that younger siblings can fill in on their own.)

    When all else fails, and you permit some television or movies for your little ones, go back in time to vintage movies and TV shows that will tickle both the older and younger kids' funnybones. Mary has been showing the "classics" to her crew, including Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Lost in Space. Her 12-year-old thought the '80s costumes were hilarious, and the little kids loved the movie.

    Also consider old Disney flicks that your older child may not have yet seen, and which will enthrall your younger ones.

    Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.