Twins have their own unique development experience that is awe-inspiring. Unlike the rest of us, they have a real life mirror, even if they are not identical, they have another character cast right alongside them in their story. And to extend that metaphor further, sometimes we look in the mirror and we like what we see, and sometimes we don’t.
Research on twins is abundant; it has illustrated just how much our genetics plays a role in behavior. A study at the University of Turin and the University of Parma in Italy concluded that twins become aware of each other when they are still in the womb. Unlike solo babies, they spend a large portion of their gestational time communicating with their roommate. This discovery indicates that social behavior starts much earlier for twins.1
What this means is that that twins emerge into the world with a sense of connection, and that connection can either flourish or cause problems. Parents who understand the distinct parameters of raising twins are better set up to tackle the obstacles they are likely to encounter.
Here is a funny home video of some toddler twins having a very animated “conversation”:
Dr. Barbara Klein blogs extensively about twins and common challenges that occur for parents. As a twin herself, she has first-hand understanding of the fine line between nurturing the bond between twins and fostering codependence. Here are some of the ways she recommends parents can diffuse potential problems, or as she refers to it, Double Trouble:
1. Know each of your children as an individual and help them develop their strengths and work on their challenges.
2. Make sure that you understand how your twins are relying on one another. If you see that one twin is taking care of the other “too much,” then understand why, and help the child that needs help so the brother or sister is not burdened with this responsibility.
3. Develop realistic parent rules that establish a child-centered structure that can be understood and followed. Have realistic consequences when children do not listen to you.2
Twins move at their own developmental pace, but because of their intimate, ongoing conversation, they often aid each other in adapting, problem solving and learning. That is a beautiful thing to witness, but there is a downside: they can collude against their authority figures. Remember The Parent Trap where Hailey Mills meets her twin at summer camp and they switch places? It might not be as dramatic, but twins have been known to see if they can test those boundaries. Fortunately, as they age, identical twins are rarely perfect doppelgangers. But any parent of multiples will tell you, they quickly learn how to team up and circumvent their caregivers.
Twins that do not get the support they need can become insular, and even adversarial toward the world around them. There is a story about a pair of identicals that had a mother with Alzheimer’s Disease, who regularly neglected and misidentified her children; as adults, those twins lived together, got the same education, the same job and never dated or ventured out on their own. They were distrustful of anyone outside their relationship.
Parents can strike a balance between protecting the primary bond and helping their children to individuate in a healthy way. This means encouraging communication between them, but also exploring their individual natures, interests and strengths. Avoiding direct comparisons and supporting separate social relationships is another way to guide a balanced upbringing for multiples.
Another pitfall with twins, especially triplets or more, is infighting. All siblings compete for attention from their parents and with twins, that competition can become magnified. So just like with sibs, parents can address this but divvying up the parental attention i.e., today, Dad is taking twin A to the park and Mom is taking twin B to the zoo.
For twins to cultivate sharing skills, they must also have a sense of ownership. Here’s Dr. Klein again: “One way to encourage sharing is to teach them the difference between mine and yours. For example, designate some important objects in the non-share zone. Parents can see which toys, clothing, and friends are special and keep them as separate.”3
It also helps to give them their own space, even if they share a room, they should have assigned areas for their own belongings and parents should protect ownership.
Twins are a magical anomaly that has taught us so much about humanity. In no other relationship do people find such harmonized resonance and a kindred ally in the complex process of becoming adults. Parenting this special occurrence presents different challenges, but the rewards are greater than the sum of their parts.