Having two kids is a lot of things but it is never dull. That’s because it requires balancing different tasks, different personalities, different needs, different wants, different everything. On a day-to-day basis, this can be exceptionally chaotic and stressful. Fortunately, with a little intentionality, you can manage those stressful moments and, hopefully, create a more peaceful home environment. Here, according to child development and parenting experts, are 15 practical-but-realistic strategies for balancing the chaos of parenting two kids.
1. Prioritize one-on-one time
When your older child is used to having to all to themselves, having a sibling can feel disruptive, even provoking feelings of jealousy (which in kid terms can look like acting out). Child and family therapist Fran Walfish, Psy.D, recommends minimizing that jealousy by designating regular one-on-one time with each kid.
It doesn’t have to be extensive – even 10 or 15 minutes of reading a book or digging for worms in the backyard will make a difference. And as tempting as it is, make sure you don’t allow the other sibling to interfere with that special time – doing so sends the message that you don’t care enough to focus fully on the kid you’re spending time with, which can make the jealousy worse.
2. Don’t compare
You love both your kids equally, but Walfish says it’s natural and normal for parents to feel favoritism every now and then. Some kids are easier to deal with than others, and you might have more in common with one of your children than the other. The key, according to Walfish, is to be self aware so you don’t show or communicate that favoritism.
“Sometimes, it’s the child who is less responsive to you who needs more of you,” Walfish says. “Do your best to deliver the needs of each individual child. And never, never compare your kids to each other or to other children. It only demeans and makes your child feel less valued.”
3. Create separate play spaces
All kids need time for independent play to feel balanced and healthy, and according to Laura Froyen, Ph.D, an early childhood and parenting specialist, it’s important to prioritize that. One practical way to encourage solo playtime is by creating separate play spaces for kids.
“This way a younger one can’t bother or destroy what the older one is doing, and the older one can’t always micromanage or show the younger one what to do,” Froyen says. “This can also really reduce fighting.”
4. Buy two of the same toys (when you can)
Learning to share is part of healthy development. But sometimes, it’s healthy for parents to strategically avoid conflict and stress in the home. One way to do this, Walfish says, is keeping two of the same toys around the house when siblings are younger and can’t conceptualize sharing (usually, under four years old).
For example, if your kids regularly fight over the red firetruck or the dog stuffed animal, it might make sense to buy two of them. “It’s very hard for toddlers to share and take turns. They need lots of practice before they can be expected to master cooperative play,” Walfish says.
5. Practice narration
As your kids get old enough to understand concepts like sharing, it’s your role as a parent to help them master them. But it doesn’t have to be complicated, and you can even use conflicts (like fighting over toys) to teach.
Walfish recommends using narration language, talking out loud with your kids about what they feel and wants in the moment. For instance, if your daughter is grabbing her brother’s toy out of his hands, you can talk empathically about how hard it is to wait, then encourage her to tell you how angry she’s feeling. Next, teach your kids that it’s OK to feel big feelings, but it’s not OK to hurt one another with our hands or our words – we can express strong anger and emotions without calling names or hitting.
6. Work on projects together
Another simple way to add some balance (and fun) to the family, according to Walfish: Do projects together that require a team. Whether you bake cookies, clean up toys, or play a toddler-friendly team game, working together on something helps both your kids feel loved and invested in, all the while honing skills like cooperation, teamwork, and communication.
7. Set expectations first thing in the morning
You might have all the best intentions about playing with your kids, but in the midst of a busy schedule, stopping to play LEGOs can feel like an interruption. On the flipside, failing to do so can result in meltdowns and other poor behavior.
Katie Jordan-Downs, senior director of education programs at KinderCare Education, says it’s a good idea to set expectations about the day in the morning with both your kids about when you’ll be available to focus on them, whether individually or as a group.
“Share when you know you’ll have some time to do something with them and let them choose the activity,” she says. “Knowing what to expect and having a voice in how you’ll spend time together helps them exercise patience and even prepare for the fun you’ll have together.”
8. Divide and conquer
If you have two or more adults in the house, Jordan-Downs says it can help to divide and conquer on any and all of these parenting-two-kids strategies. For example, maybe one of you speaks Kid 1’s language, and it’s easier for you to listen and engage with them, or the other enjoys imaginary play as much as Kid 2 so you handle play time.
“Chatting about these things as a family and making a plan of how you can ‘do it all’ based on your strengths as adults will make it feel easier for you and more fun for the kids,” she says.
9. Prioritize quiet time for everyone
Even if your kids aren’t napping anymore, do yourself a favor by building some quiet time in your day. Your kids probably need it as much as you do. Froyen highly recommends building “down time” into the daily rhythm of your day, where everyone has a chance to rest, play on their own, and just relax. Even if it’s just 20 or 30 minutes, you’ll all emerge recharged and hopefully, ready to take on the rest of the day.
10. Try to stick with a routine
Kids tend to act out more when things are unpredictable, so Froyen says having a rhythm or “flow” to your day can be helpful for establishing what to expect and what’s expected of them. That doesn’t mean you have to implement a strict schedule, which might be hard to follow especially when your kids are younger.
Instead, focus on establishing a predictable flow: For example, maybe your kids brush their teeth every morning after breakfast, play with you until lunch, and then watch a TV show before quiet play time. No matter what routine you set up, make sure it works naturally with your family’s habits – there’s no need to add stress.
11. Be a conflict coach for your kids
When your kids are screaming at each other and you’re at the end of your rope, it’s tempting to intervene as a referee to put an end to the fighting. But Froyen suggests a different long-term strategy. Instead of figuring out the problem for them, teach them the skills they need to solve it themselves.
This is a great opportunity to practice Walfish’s narration technique. First, Froyen suggests saying what you see. For example, you could say, “I see two kids who want to watch a different show.” Then, take an audible deep breath in front of your kids, so they know breathing is a good way to calm down. Finally, after empathizing with both perspectives, help them come up with a solution, like suggesting a different show or allowing one kid to pick today and another kid to pick tomorrow.
It might take longer, but this way, you’re both quelling the fight and equipping your kids to independently problem solve down the road.
12. Embrace technology when necessary
It’s not necessarily a good idea to have your kids in front of the TV all day, but keep in mind that part of being an attentive, present parent is taking time to rejuvenate yourself and your relationship with your partner whenever you can. If hiring a babysitter isn’t in the picture right now, Dr. Lea Lis, double board-certified adult and child psychiatrist, suggests using a TV show or a movie so you can spend a few hours uninterrupted with your partner.
13. Ask for a break
If you’re hankering for some time alone, make it a priority. According to Lis, it’s important for both parents to have a dedicated slot for “me time” every week where the other parent does the babysitting. If possible, ask your partner, a trusted loved one, or if needed, the TV, to fill in for you while you do an activity that helps you feel recharged. In the end, you’ll be a better parent for stepping away to recharge.
14. Embrace individuality
It might come more naturally to you to relate with one of your kids, but don’t forget both of your children have different interests, learning styles, and so on. According to Jordan-Downs, you may have to approach common lessons with each of your kids differently. Try to slow down long enough to consider what you know about your child’s personality and temperament and try different techniques when your go-to for your oldest child isn’t getting you anywhere for your youngest child.
The same goes for connection. What one child needs to feel heard or connected could be a snuggle in the morning, while the other kid needs to tell you a long story and do an activity to release their energy. Try to be flexible and follow their lead. “The more you embrace who they are in your interactions, the easier it will be to navigate the tricker times,” she says.
15. Minimize your distractions
We all use our phones or the TV to check out from time to time, and a bit of distance from your kids can be a much-needed form of self-care. But Froyen emphasizes it’s important to practice a bit of mindful presence with your kids every day. Put your phone down, turn off the TV, and be as fully present as you watch them play (or, if you feel like it, play with them).
“This will help you get to know them better, feel more connected to them, and it is incredibly fulfilling and healing for them,” Froyen says.