Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Understanding Twins

How Parental Indifference Affects the Twin Bond

A parenting problem that impedes healthy self-development.

Unfortunately, many identical and fraternal twins are born into families that are not prepared to care for a single child, let alone twins. Lack of interest and resources are common for overwhelmed or indifferent parents who then decide to use their twin children as parent substitutes. Often these short-sighted parents have limitations such as alcoholism or depression.

Different types of circumstances prevent parents from paying enough attention to their twins. Parents who are lacking in compassion, practical experience, and necessary resources allow their twins to rely on one another for attention, comfort, and encouragement. The parentified twin relationship is somewhat functional in childhood because the twin bond helps prevent loneliness. Being the actual parenting figure, though, creates issues with interdependence and lack of self-reliance as twins grow older and want to separate from each other (Klein, Twin Dilemmas, 2017).

Twins Who Lost Their Parents During World War II

Catastrophic circumstances and inadequate parenting can cause twins to intensely turn to each other for attention and nurturing. A frightening example is of young twins who raised one another in Auschwitz. Separated from their mother and ignored by their father, Greta and Darlene survived the Holocaust. Living in Auschwitz and coping with unreasonable working conditions, the physical and emotional abuse would have been untenable without the other’s presence. Their attachment literally kept them alive. And they continued to rely on one another throughout their lives. Greta and Darlene experienced their primary identity always as twins—their individual identity was secondary. Both women chose to stay together for security (Schave & Ciriello, Identity and Intimacy in Twins, 1983).

Cold-Hearted and Inadequate Parents

Jeanie and Jenny were born to teenagers who had little interest in being parents. Dad was an alcoholic and gambler who was home sporadically. Their mother stayed home and took care of the household chores. She felt burdened by her children and encouraged her twin daughters to take care of each other.

As children, Jeanie and Jenny fought and were inconsiderate of one another, but still highly dependent. Jeanie had emotional difficulties when not in physical proximity with Jenny. When they graduated from college each twin got a job and married. Being together and speaking with one another was hard for both of them after the initial shock of not being physically close any more. Eventually they were estranged for 10 years. When they reconnected there was still criticism, disappointment, and deep anger between them. As well, they had difficulty being close to other people in their lives. The twin bond existed as remote but very alive. They were often tortured emotionally by their lack of closeness, but unable to have empathy for one another or significant others in their adult lives. Riddled with criticalness, they remained lonely and empty on a personal level. The early relationship could not be changed.

No Home for You

Because of her self-centeredness, Linda and Laura's mother, Helene, was not interested in her twin children. When her marriage broke up, Helene told her daughters to live with their father. Dan, however, refused to take care of his twin children because his new wife was not interested in being a stepmother.

At age 12, they were supposed to survive on their own. Linda and Laura became each other's parent. They lived in an apartment that their father paid for. They went to school and cooked for one another when Mom or Dad would not invite them for dinner. Laura helped Linda do her homework and Linda took care of the laundry and straightened the apartment. Both teenagers worked to support themselves and each other. They were a team for many years, until they meet older romantic interests and got married.

But anger and resentment toward one another became apparent, and fighting began when newcomers disrupted or came between their relationship with each other. Laura started undermining her sister and turning people against Linda by lying.

Linda never got over her mother's and father's abandonment and her twin sister’s cruelty. A cold, formal, and distant relationship with her parents evolved. The twin relationship also became hostile, based on their early, empty-of-feeling home life. For both twins, distance and criticism of others became the safe way of getting along in the world. Wanting closeness was a goal that seemed unattainable because they could be demanding and cruel when they didn’t get their own way. Unlike the close twins who survived the Holocaust because of their bond with each other, they learned that trusting each other was dangerous and troubling.

Favoritism Hurts Both Twins

Parents might favor one twin over the other as an easy way of establishing separate identities. Favoritism creates problems for the "good" twin and the "bad" twin, or the visible and invisible twin. Sometimes twins are “split” like this to suit the comfort and convenience of the caregivers (Klein, Not All Twins Are Alike, 2003).

Mary became known as the good sister and Mel as the bad sister. These labels followed each one throughout their lives. Estrangement between the twins developed when they married, but expecting deep caring from one another never stopped and caused further unhappiness for each one, who secretly longed for their twin’s help.

When twins are seen as halves of a whole, estrangement is a likely outcome. While twins who are ignored and asked to care for each other have difficulty getting along in adulthood, they can often manage to create somewhat of an adult relationship. When one twin is favored, narcissism becomes the way of relating for the favored twin. The bad twin will often suffer from depression.


In general, inadequate parenting leads to estrangement between twins. Resolving estrangement is possible if both members of the pair are interested in participating, and an experienced expert with twins is available for education, insight, and support (Klein, Twin Dilemmas, 2017).

Interventions to Promote Closeness and Comfort for Estranged Twins Who Have Been Parentified

  1. Talk about your feelings of identity with your twin and other close loved ones.
  2. What special interests do you share with your twin?
  3. Do not judge or criticize your twin’s decisions.
  4. Get outside with friends doing enjoyable activities to prevent isolation and anger.
  5. Gently insist on going out with your twin.
  6. Remember that really getting along with your twin is hard to do. Harmony is possible when coupled with patience, concern, and achievable goals (Klein, Hart & Martinez, New Understandings of Twin Relationships, 2020).


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