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Understanding Twins

Attentive Parenting

The foundation for trust in the adult lives of twins.

Barbara Klein
Source: Barbara Klein

Popular thinking and cultural mores about being a twin or parenting twins are very idealistic. Twins on the whole often feel misunderstood when people ask, “How is your twin?” And when twins respond in an indifferent or negative tone, onlookers ask, “Why don't you get along with your twin? I wish I had a twin.” It is not as if getting along with your twin is an abomination of nature. The real answer to provocative questions about harmony between twins lies in how twins have been parented.

I have learned from all the years I spent researching and consulting twins that parenting twins is extremely exhausting because of the emotional and physical demands from infancy onward. I have never spoken to a parent of twins who said to me, “This is easier than I imagined.” Instead they say, “My children change quickly from being calm and comforted to being totally miserable, screaming and hitting each other.” One father who consulted with me labeled his five-year-old twins Hug and Slug. These adorable children ran away from preschool and of course were hard to control when they wanted to not listen to the teacher and get their own way, which is often called “double trouble.” The father’s summary of his sons’ early twin interactions are common in this age range when double trouble can run rampant and authority figures are easily ignored.

The twin interaction, born in the womb and obviously nonverbal, creates closeness and neediness, side by side with frustration and anger at one another at having to face their world separately. Comfort is found in physical proximity, where a sense of oneness is maintained.

Competition and confusion about which twin is in in need of food or attention is normal. Parents can feel left out by the intensity to their children’s attachment. Intervening between twins is challenging and an immediate issue to deal with through interactions and understanding. Suffice it to say if you are having an easy time developing a unique sense of each child you are not doing a substantially good enough job. Attentiveness requires enlightened interaction. Sharing a bottle or breast with your child is not enough. Twins need nuanced interactions. There is no one size fits all formula for raising twins.

Separating twins and developing their individual capabilities is the primary psychological goal of parenthood. Dressing twins differently, putting them in separate classes at school, and giving them their own rooms is only a beginning. These mechanical objective strategies can be a structure to let your twins grow into themselves but so much more interpersonal uniqueness needs to be fostered through individual attentiveness.

What does individual attentiveness for parents look like in actual behavioral terms?

1. Experience each child as an individual from the moment of “first connection.” Humor your intuitive emotional connection with each twin as they grow. For example, Twin A, Hug, is a calmer baby who is less demanding than Twin B, Slug. Slug cries easily and needs more holding. Temperamental Slug is more high strung than his brother. Slug can be calmed down by Hug but both boys need to be engaged with their parents through holding, singing, playing games, and of course feeding and soothing.

2. Time with each child alone that is interesting and creative and develops curiosity on a daily basis. Do not impose a goal in this interaction when you begin. Let the goal or structure evolve from being together. As you develop a unique relationship with each child, talk with them about what is going on and make up a narrative that you can repeat to them.

3. Play time together for both children that is non-structured but also in a safe place.

4. Separate time alone every day to prevent the overdevelopment of enmeshment and interdependence. Find toys, videos and books that belong only to one child. While these items can be shared, the owner needs to be consulted first and give permission to use his/her toy, book, game, etc.

5. Assessing differences between your children and developing their strengths and weaknesses is essential. For example, Paul is the pushy child. Polly is the quiet “stand behind” supporter for her twin brother Paul. Both twins favor their own styles of interacting and have difficulty at school for different reasons. But Paul is given more negative attention without his sister Polly and he learns to expect that he will get in trouble. Polly hides in the corner without Paul to give her interactions meaning as she has been over focused on her brother and has difficulty focusing on herself.

6. Twins at first will make friends together, which involves learning to share friends. Parents should monitor these experiences to make sure that one twin is not dominating the other.

7. Making friends outside of the twinship can provide opportunities for parents to understand the uniqueness of their child. Nurturing each child’s differences will be easier when your children have their own special friends.

8. Make sure that outside caregivers and relatives respect how your twins are different from one another and that they encourage their differences in their actions and reactions.

9. Find separate activities that each child is interested in doing alone. And limit the shared activities that are done together.

10. Language development shows the development of the strength of the self. If twins are talking for one another or have developed their own special language, consult with a speech therapist.

The above interventions will help parents develop authentic relationships with their children. In turn the parent-child attachment will not be replaced by the twin attachment. When a problem arises twins can turn to their parents for help as well as one another. Parental attachment will limit twin estrangement in later life.

More from Barbara Klein Ph.D., Ed.D.
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