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Three's a Crowd: When Siblings Feel Left Out

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There's a tug at my heart every time I hear my 6-year-old daughter pounding on her 10-year-old sister's door, pleading to let her join in on the fun she's having with a friend. My little one always wants to invade her sister's playdates, and I didn't want to host them for months because of it.

Siblings are often each other's best friend and go-to playmate, so it can be difficult for your school-age child to see hers having fun without her. At this age, kids are becoming more social and want to feel included in group dynamics, says Susan Stiffelman, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles and author of Parenting Without Power Struggles. Playing with a younger sibling and friend lets an older child feel cool and show off a little. On the other hand, joining an older sibling and friend helps a younger child learn new ways to act and play by modeling their behavior. And regardless of the guest's age, your child likely doesn't want to feel left out or bored not having her own playdate. We tapped experts for tips on keeping the peace when a sibling's friend makes three.

Set Expectations

To dodge any meltdowns, help your kids decide on the rules regarding boundaries and what toys can be used prior to a friend's arrival, says Stephanie Pratola, Ph.D., a child psychologist and registered play therapist in Salem, Virginia. Ask questions like, "Is it okay if your sister and her friend play with your Rainbow Loom?" Talk through what your child feels comfortable with, and then go over the consequences for not adhering to the agreed-upon rules.

Try a Team Effort

Many kids have no problem including younger or older siblings, so let them work it out on their own if they agreed to play as a group beforehand. It's not necessary for you to lead the activities. Instead, point out that it's up to them to come up with a game everyone can be a part of. However, if they object too strongly or someone's feeling left out, empathize with your excluded child. Say, "It's hard to let your brother visit alone with his friend. You would really like to play with them."

Make Alternate Plans

If you need to give your older child one-on-one time with his friend, find a nice alternative for your younger child. Maybe she can read a book or take a walk with you. But if you're short on free time, include her in folding the laundry or opening mail. Another option is arranging for her to have a friend over at the same time. Of course, you can always offer additional incentives: "If I don't have to referee during the playdate, I'll put glitter on your nails tonight." The good news is that your child will move away from wanting to join her siblings' playdates as she matures, says James H. Bray, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. Until then, I think I'll stock up on nail polish.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Parents magazine.