My identical twin sister and I frequently reminisce about our worst fight. Although we both remember the incident with slightly divergent perspectives, the upshot of the argument was that my sister ended up with a few broken fingers after I pushed her and she fell down onto the pavement. I believe we were about seven years old at the time.
When parents seem surprised and dismayed about their twins’ incessant bickering, I wonder if they are under the spell of the twin mystique—believing that twins should be best friends and soul mates forever. Parents of multiples pray for the time when the siblings will be able to play peacefully by themselves and give Mom and Dad a reprieve from referee duties.
If we understand some of the underlying reasons why twins fight, we can find more effective ways of handling and minimizing the expectable friction. I have suggested repeatedly in my books and presentations that we need to teach twins not to share. I surmise that much of their fighting is a reaction to their needing to share Mom and Dad’s attention, time, and love. We should remind ourselves that singletons don’t necessarily like to share. So why would we expect twins to do so just because they shared a womb?
I love the observation that Peter Goldenthal makes in his book Beyond Sibling Rivalry about how adults do not like sharing. I certainly do not like to share my favorite toys and food. I do not appreciate someone other than me using my computer, nor do I allow anyone to go into my chocolate stash without asking permission!
Goldenthal believes that teaching our children to take turns rather than share is crucial. I concur that this is a healthier strategy to help twins manage their feelings and frustrations when they are arguing over the same toy or fighting about who gets what first.
In my book Emotionally Healthy Twins I suggest having a few items that belong solely to each twin. For example, you could provide two balls or trucks or dolls, each clearly designated with a certain color or marking as belonging to a specific twin. Each twin can decide whether or not he or she wants the other to have a turn with that toy. This sense of control might alleviate some of the explosive behavior that accompanies the yelling and screaming resulting from wanting what the other one has.
Naturally, toddlers and preschool-age children need your intervention when situations get out of hand. Goldenthal urges parents to practice authoritative parenting, not authoritarian parenting. He cites the importance of being firm, consistent, and unambiguous about what you communicate to your child. He stresses the importance of rewarding good behavior whenever you see it. He understands how parents escalate into a threatening mode after they have asked their child to do something two or three times without compliance. However, he cautions that the child who becomes accustomed to responding solely to threats is not learning how to earn approval and respect in an appropriate emotional climate.
Goldenthal also discusses what it may signify when a child complains that something is not fair. He urges parents to distinguish between petulance, impatience, and limit testing. He says to listen carefully to determine if the child is actually angry and has a legitimate concern about something that feels unfair. Then parents must try to determine what this imbalance is and figure out a way to rectify it. For example, I have heard numerous stories about twins who do not have the opportunity to advance to a higher level in a sport because the coach is uncomfortable promoting one and leaving behind the other. If a situation like this does occur, it is a parent’s responsibility to explain to the coach that it is unfair to hold one twin back for the sake of the other. Attempting to make life fair for twins can have disastrous consequences as they get older.
Some sibling conflicts stem from competition, and other struggles reflect individual emotional and interpersonal issues. Jealousy over attention from parents can also be a major cause of sibling conflict. In the case of twins, it is especially important not to compare the children and to help them develop their own unique talents and abilities. Children who are deprived of opportunities to contribute to their families and resentful about the attention and praise that a sibling receives will often show signs of aggression and belligerence. Understanding each child’s temperament and not having our children live out our dreams will also help to minimize sibling clashes.