Take time to create a space that is special for the children, and gives them some personal ownership.

There is an informal debate about whether or not opposite-sexed siblings should be allowed to share a bedroom and, if so, for how long. There are as many opinions on this topic as there are people giving them, so we decided to ask an expert to help clear up the confusion.

We interviewed Emily Kircher-Morris, MA, MEd, PLPC, and a provisionally licensed professional counselor in St. Louis that specializes in working with gifted and high-achieving children, to see what her opinion on the controversy was; we wanted her to shed some light on a common scenario for many households.

Q: At what age do you suggest separating boys' and girls' bedrooms?

A: There isn't a specific age cutoff that requires that opposite-sex children separate rooms. Parents should monitor where their children are, developmentally, and make decisions from there.

Often, once children are in school, they begin to become aware of the need for modesty and may feel uncomfortable changing in front of an opposite-gender sibling; however, accommodations can be made for this, and kids can change in other areas or at separate times.

Yet, by the time children reach puberty, it will be much more difficult for them to feel comfortable sharing and room, and the need for privacy and space should be respected as much as possible.

Q: What factors should parents look for when determining if they should separate the kids?

A: If there is any concern that a child is acting out in a sexually aggressive way, it is important that the children be separated. If one or both of the children have ever been sexually abused, they may have difficulty understanding the clear boundaries associated with privacy.

If a child expresses concern about privacy, families will benefit from taking those concerns seriously and work together to find an appropriate solution.

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Q: What are the consequences if the kids are not separated early enough?

A: Some families may see a lot of benefit from having children share bedroom space throughout their youth. The children may have a stronger bond with each other and feel comfortable sharing their things. Siblings may also find comfort in sleeping in the same room with a brother or sister.

As children enter puberty, having space where they can feel comfortable with their bodies is important. Body image concerns may result in a child who feels uncomfortable or unsure of his or her body, [and] sharing a room may increase feelings of concern within a child.

Q: How can parents deal with the situation if they just don't have enough room to separate them? (What are some alternatives?)

A: Families who share rooms by necessity can find solutions for the problems. Children can be given their own specified space to keep clothes and toys in the bedroom. Providing an alternate space to change clothes, like the bathroom, or a schedule for the bedroom, can also help children learn the boundaries that are appropriate for privacy between genders.

Q: How should parents explain the separation to unwilling children who are used to being in the same room?

A: By emphasizing the benefits of having their own space, parents can encourage unwilling children to accept the change in sleeping arrangements. By taking time to create a space that is special for the children, parents can help children to feel excited about the change and give them some ownership over the new space.

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Q: What if the boy and girl are step-siblings? Does that change things (for both step-siblings that are close in age and those that are far apart in age?)

A: This would mostly be a concern related to the age at which the children became step-siblings. If they were brought together at a young age … the situation would be very similar to biological siblings. Older children would benefit from having their own space.

Q: What if the step-siblings only see each other a few times each year? Does this change things?

A: Again, this would be relevant depending on the age of the step-siblings and when they became step-siblings. Once a child reaches a point where he or she understands the need for modesty and privacy, it could be difficult to expect them to share space. However, if it were only a few times a year for short periods of time, it would most likely impact the children less than a longer-term sharing of space. If the children are far apart in age, either is nearing puberty, or one expresses more need for privacy than the other they should have separate space.