Two to three years old is probably the most challenging age for little kids to learn to share. Disputes will most certainly occur earlier and later than this, but 2-3 years seems to be the peak age when most parents see their kids struggle with sharing. At this age, everything is about “me.” They believe the world revolves around them, and they have not yet developed the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. As a result, you will likely find yourself weary of breaking up fights and settling disputes. These conflicts can range from mere crying to pushing, hitting, biting, scratching, hair pulling, screaming, and more.
To help other twin parents navigate this exhausting and frustrating phase, below are 6 strategies that I have found to be effective in helping my twin girls learn to share.
#1 – Use “Taking Turns” Language Instead Of “Sharing”
When you think about it, the word “sharing” sounds a lot like playing with a toy at the same time. And no toddler wants to play with a toy at the same time as another child. They want sole possession.
I found my girls to be more receptive when I use the language “taking turns.” Not only does this imply that the twin who had the toy first will get it back, but also that each kid will get to play with it alone when it is their turn.
This is a tactic that you can start when your twins are quite young and first starting to fight over toys. Sure, young toddlers will not fully comprehend the concept, and you’ll still have plenty of disappointed crying. But laying the groundwork early, and consistently modeling the desired behavior, will pay dividends down the road as your twins learn to share better.
One caveat, I do use the “sharing” language when we have friends over for a playdate. As in, they will need to “share” their toys while our friends are at our house. If my twins have any special toys that they do not want the other kids to play with, then they can put those in their bedroom before our guests arrive. Once the playdate has started and a dispute arises over a particular toy then I will revert to using the “taking turns” language. Granted, their ability to practice this skill has been severely limited in the past year due to the global pandemic.
#2 – Narrate the Situation Like a Sportscaster
Toddlers and young preschoolers like their feelings and emotions to be heard and validated. This is especially the case when they do not yet have the language to express it themselves, and particularly when they are upset. Sometimes having the caregiver narrate what happened can help diffuse the situation a bit and give space to find a solution. For example, “You both want the same car. N was playing with it first and S grabbed it because it looked like fun. Now N is crying because she is upset that S took the car.”
Talking through what each twin is feeling also helps them begin to identify emotions (e.g., sad, frustrated, angry). Now you can show empathy for what each child is feeling, while also finding a solution that helps them learn to share or take turns. “Since N had the car first, she gets to play with it right now. When she is done then you (S) can have a turn. I know you are feeling frustrated because you want to play with it right now. Waiting is really hard!”
#3 – Start Setting Timers
Once your twins are around 2-2.5 years old, timers will be your best friend. And I’m only kind of joking. But really, timers are like magic for helping little kids take turns.
Like in many situations, kids seem to respond better when they have a warning about an upcoming transition. And timers provide this warning. For example, say I set a timer because my girls are fighting over a toy. Twin A gets a little more time with the desired item while knowing she will have to give it up soon. Meanwhile, Twin B learns patience while knowing she will get her turn in 1-minute. Plus, when using a timer, it isn’t the parent telling the child when their turn is over, it is the clock!
I frequently use Alexa to set timers because it is easy to call out from various places in the house without dropping whatever I’m doing. Between 2-3 years old, I set 1-minute timers. Between 3-4 years old, I sometimes set longer timers, like 2-3 minutes.
Refusing To Give Up The Toy
Occasionally your kids may refuse to hand over the toy to their sibling when the timer rings. In these cases, I will say something like, “It seems like you are having a hard time taking turns right now. I am going to count to three, and then I will help you give it to your sister.” Most of the time, the child in question will pass the toy to her sister (or drop it on the floor) before I get to three.
Requesting the Timer
Kids are smart, and by 3-3.5 years old, your twins may even begin asking you to set the timer when they want something that their sibling has. Additionally, you may start witnessing them negotiating between themselves about how many minutes until the turn should be over. This is great as it shows that they are learning to share and problem-solve between themselves, which usually means fewer meltdowns.
I also sometimes see my kids voluntarily hand over the desired item before the timer even rings. To me, this is an example of how important it is for kids to feel in control (in this case, about when to hand over the toy). Sure, they could wait until the timer goes off and they “have” to give it up. But they probably feel more in control when the action feels like it is their idea and done on their terms.
#4 – Helping Twins Learn To Share A Favorite Person
Around 18 months old or so, you may notice your twins becoming increasingly possessive and jealous of their favorite person, usually mom or dad. For example, if one twin is sitting on your lap or being held, the other immediately wants to be there too. And they are no longer content to share the space; they want you ALL to his- or herself. You may find yourself frequently caught between two crying and pushing toddlers as they vie for your attention.
One strategy to deal with these situations is to anticipate and avoid confrontation as best you can. For instance, imagine that Twin A climbs onto your lap. You can say, “Okay, you can sit on my right leg here, but we are going to leave the left leg open in case your sister wants to sit there.”
Another option is to use the “taking turns” strategy if they both want to sit on your lap but refuse to share at the same time. So, whichever twin expressed interest first gets to sit on your lap and have snuggles for a certain amount of time (maybe set a timer). And then switch and do the same with the other twin.
When Nothing Works
I’ll be honest, sometimes your kids will not be pacified by whichever strategy you try. In those instances when my patience has run out and I am tired of being a battleground, then they both lose out. I will tell them, “I do not like to be fought over. If you do not want to share or take turns, then neither of you get to sit on my lap.” And I will get up and go do something else.
Another situation you might encounter is if one twin is hurt or upset and needs some cuddles, but then the other twin tries to nudge her way into the middle. In this case, I will say something like “S is sad/hurt about XYZ and needs some time with just mommy right now. But when S is feeling better, I would love to have you sit on my lap and give you special hugs.” Although this strategy is not 100% effective, it does frequently seem to pacify the child that is trying to push her way in.
#5 – Asking Permission To Use “Owned” Items
In our house, most of our twins’ toys and gear are shared. However, there are a handful of similar but different items that have been “claimed” by each twin (e.g., lovies, blankets, water bottles, backpacks, beds, etc.). If Twin B wants to use something that is “owned” by Twin A, then she must ask her sister for permission first. Twin A can allow it or not. If permission is NOT granted, I will usually say something like, “It sounds like S wants to keep her XYZ right now. Maybe you can ask again a little later and she will let you have a turn with it.” Sometimes this answer results in tears and we will talk through that disappointment.
Like many twins, my kids share almost everything and have so few items that solely belong to each child. As a result, they are typically quite possessive of those special items. And that is okay! If they are agreeable to letting their sibling use their item, then that is a beautiful example of them learning to share. But just because almost everything else is jointly owned, Twin B does not have an inherent right to use something that belongs to Twin A without asking for permission first.
Note, having your kids ask for permission is a strategy that is more age appropriate once your twins are at least 3 years old. By then language is more developed. Plus, they are just starting to have the capacity to learn empathy and put themselves in another person’s shoes.
#6 – Let Daniel Tiger Help Your Kids Learn To Share
The hugely popular PBS Kids show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood seems to have a segment that addresses pretty much every challenging situation that a toddler or preschooler will encounter.
If TV is allowed in your house, check out the episode “Life’s Little Lessons.” The segment helps children develop the social skill of sharing by teaching that “sharing” means letting someone else have a turn with the desired item. And also understanding that they will get it back again for another turn.
After watching the episode, talk with your kids about what happened between characters as they learn to share their toys. Make comparisons to actual conflicts that your twins recently experienced between themselves or friends. “Remember this morning when…”. My kids comprehend concepts better if we talk through it and make comparisons to real-life incidents that happened to them.
Stay Consistent With Your Approach
When helping your twins learn to share, it is a good idea to begin modeling the desired behavior when your kids are young. It is also important to be consistent with the approach you use and how you enforce it. This can frequently be difficult (and frustrating!) while in the thick of the conflict. But kids thrive on routine and knowing what to expect. Eventually, the concept will sink in and your twins will get better at learning to share as they get older.
Do you have other strategies that have helped your twins or kids learn to share? If so, please put them in the comments. I always love hearing what works for other parents!