The Psychology of Parenting Twins
Twins have the same developmental needs, but the situation is much more complex.
Posted September 29, 2014 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis of the American Psychological Association. This article is submitted by Ruth Simon, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Oakland and San Francisco, CA.
The number of families with twins is increasing these days. But, parenting twins is a challenge. Early in life, the single baby takes over the entire psychological universe of his primary caregiver (whom I’ll call the mother). During her baby’s infancy, the mother’s psychological task is to get to know her baby and to help that baby move from a state in which there is a psychological union with her to the state in which the baby understands that he is separate from her, and that the world is a safe place in which to be a person. She does this by sensitively responding to her baby’s uniquely communicated needs such that the outside world is not experienced as overly frustrating, intrusive, nor traumatic to the baby.
Twins have the same developmental needs as single babies (or siblings of different ages), but the psychological situation for twins and their parents is more complex. The primary caretaker for twins has to simultaneously care for two babies, each of whom has the same developmental needs, but who are obviously not the same person. The twins themselves don’t have a primary experience of having their mother to themselves, but rather, their early experience is of sharing her care with another infant from whom they will also have to differentiate. Each twin, then, has the complicated tasks of developing a sense of herself not only as separate from their mother but also as separate from their twin.
Although mothers of siblings of different ages certainly have to tend to more than one child’s needs at a time, the unique situation of twins is that they need the same developmental attention from her at the same time. For example, early in life, they both need her to respond to them as they develop so that they can get to know what their experiences mean, how to make sense of them, and ultimately, to understand that they are their own person having these experiences. However, when a mother, for example, has an infant and a toddler, she is able to psychologically attend to both of them because their psychological and developmental needs aren’t the same. I call this twin phenomenon “psychic specific” competition to distinguish it from the more familiar sibling competition.
It is unique in twin development that there is another baby going through the same developmental tasks at the same time as someone else. Because of this, each twin can be a distraction for the mother from the other twin. She finds that she often needs to choose between them and can never give either one the experience of occupying her entire psychological universe. When this happens, the twin experiences herself as an intrusion into her twins’ psychological development. Each participant in the web can feel guilty about the situation: the mother because she can’t give each twin her undivided attention, and each twin because they register that there is another baby whose mother is being distracted by her needs.
There are several antidotes to this situation. Although the mother of twins cannot give each baby the experience of having all of her attention, she can give them an understanding that their twinship itself is important. When the mother of twins can hold the importance of the twinship in her mind, she is reflecting the actual experience of the babies who are never just one baby. This helps them develop an identity that feels true to them because it includes their having been born as part of a group.
A second adult (whom I’ll call the father) in the life of twins also offers some very important relief from the complexity of the mother-baby-baby web. When the father is present, the mother can relax her psychological effort of having to pay attention to two individual babies and to their twinship. Now each parent can pay sole attention to one baby without having to worry about the other baby’s needs. During these times, the baby can come to know herself outside her relationship with her twin. This will help her define the boundaries of self-otherness and also relieves her from the guilt of being an interruption to her other twin.
Because twins have a very social early life and because it is more difficult to individuate from such a web of relationships, other development tasks that twins face later in life will be colored by this early matrix. Parenting at all stages of development continues to require that the parent understand that the twins have a primary relationship that partially excludes the mother and she must learn to honor and respect that relationship as it is central to her children’s identity. Because of the early group experiences in twins’ lives, their solutions to growing up, separating and developing their identities may look different than the solutions for single babies. Our society values independence and autonomy above relatedness and interdependence, but as the number of multiples in this society increases, perhaps it’s time to rethink these values for these children who were never single babies.