Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nurturing Individuality - A Conversation With Dr. Joan Friedman

About a year and a half ago I discovered a book called "Emotionally Healthy Twins" which radically changed my parenting style and the way I looked at my then 2-year old twins. The author, Dr. Joan Friedman, is a psychotherapist and prominent twin expert who specializes in the emotional well being of twins. As an identical twin herself, as well as a mother of 5, including adult twin boys, she understands the specific dynamics inherent in raising twins as well as growing up as a twin. Her book begins with seven keys to parenting, some of which include:
  1. Think of your twins as two unique individuals.
  2. Expect to have different feelings for each child.
  3. Give each child consistent "alone time" with you. They need it in order to adequately bond with you.
  4. Don't attempt to "provide a fair and equal" childhood for your twins.
What??? Only a few "keys" into it and my head was already reeling. I really hadn't considered most of this. Being an only child I never really considered the idea that siblings needed time away from each other. More to the point, I noticed that I had a lot of preconceived notions about twins that were keeping me from truly getting to know my children and that were going to keep my children from learning who they were, apart from their co-twin. 

When our children were born, I quickly realized that the more you do with your babies as a set, the more validation you get as a mom. The average person would look on as I tandem breast fed and would marvel at my accomplishment. Merely navigating the aisles of Whole Foods with one baby in the cart and the other in a sling was enough to garner looks of approval and a brief adult conversation or two. All this was so needed early on that I actually feared taking out one baby and no longer being "special". On top of all of this, there are all of these accepted ideas about how twins have been together in the womb for 9 months and they need to stay together in order to adjust. 

Last week I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Friedman (that's her in the picture to the left) to talk about both this first book and the new one she is writing about adult twins. In the new book, she shows how families who give their multiples permission to express their ambivalence about being a twin, and who nurture the children's individuality, allow them to develop healthier and happier relationships with their siblings, parents, and significant others.

We began by talking about Dr. Friedman's own experience raising her twins and it was so interesting to hear that she had separated her boys immediately and never saw any reason not to. In part, she said, it might be because she already had three other children before her boys were born, but also she instinctively knew that doing so helped relieve some of the guilt she was feeling over not always being able to give each her full attention and that separating them was so helpful in being able to get to know each of them. She was so shocked that, even to this day, people have so much resistance to this concept that twins need and want to have experiences apart from each other. Where does that resistance come from we wonder as we talk. How can we help people see that giving each child time to themselves where they don't have to share everything can be nothing but good for them.

Perhaps this resistance stems from the "twin mystique" that Dr. Friedman speaks of often in her book. This concept is the assumption most of the world holds that all twins feel intensely connected to each other, feel lost without their "other half," and enjoy being part of a matched set. Many of us who had never intimately known twins before becoming parents to them, have this romanticized notion of what being a twin is supposed to be like and it can be a major road block to being able to look at our twins as individuals. There is an excellent short newsletter on Dr. Friedman's website entitled Beware The Myth as well as her own description of why twins need alone time

According to Dr. Friedman, the earlier you begin the individuation process the better. Like anything else (transition to sippy cups, elimination of the pacifier etc.), the longer you wait, the harder it can be. But don't mistake the protests of your two-year old when you try to take him out without his brother, a two-year old will complain about just about anything that is foreign to him; it doesn't mean that what you're attempting is bad for him! However, she does point out that this way of parenting must resonate for you. Just as well-meaning friends can recommend sleep training as the way to go when you are sleep deprived, if you're not ready to hear it, separating and individuating your children won't be something you're going to try. 

It is important to understand that allowing your children their own individual time and experiences does not undermine their bond as twins and siblings. In fact, it allows them to miss each other and to reconnect with great joy when seeing each other again. Nor is Dr. Friedman suggesting that you never do things as a family or with both children together, just that you allow for this expanded way of seeing your children. So...if you are still reading and, like me when I first read Dr. Friedman's book, you're intrigued, consider this: Nurturing individuality 
  • helps with the bonding process for both parents.
  • helps form strong attachments.
  • helps the father/partner feel both needed and included. 
  • allows both mother and father time where they are not pulled in multiple directions and can truly enjoy being a parent.
If that's not enough to convince you to consider it, think about what benefits your children will reap:
  • Children are allowed to get out of the presence of the other child to whom they are constantly measuring themselves against and competing with.
  • Your twins will each experience the confidence boost that singletons are accustomed to: no sharing, not having to wait, time just for themselves where they are the focus of their parent's full attention.
  • Each child gets a chance to really be seen and known for who they are, not just in comparison to their co-twin. This allows for your children to fully develop their own, unique personalities. 
If you have boy/girl twins, as I do, this process is probably easiest because eventually your children will probably separate into typical "boy" and "girl" activities. If you have same sex twins you, as a parent, have to work so much harder to point out and notice your children's differences, really focusing in to "get" their individual personalities. This is so much harder to do if you rarely have them alone. 

What happens when twins don't separate?
Dr. Friedman and I continued to talk about what happens when children are not separated or allowed to individuate. She pointed out that, as a parent, one has to be conscious of the fact that you are bound to have preferences when it comes to your children. One's temperament is going to "fit" with one child's more easily than another's at times. It is particularly hard if one child is sweet and easy and the other is moody and disconnected. If you always have those children together, they will constantly be compared (by you, by others, and even by themselves). Not being conscious of this reaction to their personalities affects how you treat each child and ultimately how they think of themselves. You must work twice as hard to accentuate the strengths of each child and take extra steps to connect to the twin who you feel most at odds with.

Perhaps the most difficult part about convincing parents to try these methods is that there are rarely instant benefits to doing this. Unlike sleep training, where you see results after a few tough nights, the process of nurturing a child's individuality takes shape over decades and you never really know what might have been had you not done it this way. What happens when twins don't individuate? This question intrigued Dr. Friedman as she began to write her second book (tentatively titled "The Greatest Story Never Told: Twins' Struggle For Intimacy"). As we discussed the book, Dr. Friedman reminded me that many, many twins have wonderful relationships with their families and with each other. She is passionate about helping parents understand what twins need in order to individuate so that they mature without difficult developmental dilemmas. It's cute when they're infants, but as far as I know, no one wants their twins to end up in their 70's and still dressing alike!

The Parents' Role
In this new book, Dr. Friedman discusses how parents who have the idea that their twins have to be best friends, don't allow them to fight or dislike each other or have any kind of ambivalence towards each other. Singletons have the freedom to work out their anger, competitive feelings, and general sibling rivalry. They have lots of permission to express their negative emotions. Twins are sometimes robbed of this privilege and are, instead, encouraged to always include and be friends with their co-twin. Dr. Friedman believes that many parents feel that if twins appear as if they are not getting along then they will be seen as terrible parents. This can lead to a conscious or unconscious vested interest in presenting to the world twins who are best friends; if not, it is some sort of terrible parental failure. So how do some twins end up so enmeshed?
  • Their parents are too exhausted and overwhelmed and see it is a relief if the children take care of each other.
  • Parents don't buy in to the concept of alone time.
  • If there is insufficient attachment to the parents, children bond to each other and have to get along with each other as no one else is there. In an extreme case like this, the adult twins can't afford to delve into their co-dependence, conflict or anger; there is too much at risk.
Adolescence and Young Adulthood
Adolescence is often a time of experimentation and trying to understand who you are really are. Often twins, who up until this time have enjoyed their sameness will decide, sometimes abruptly, that they need their own identity; someone will cut their hair, separate friends will be made, divergent interests may take hold. Most adolescents have the need to break away and be separate. According to Dr. Friedman, if parents don't allow their twins to differentiate themselves from each other and to form their own identity, there will be guilt, anger and perhaps a greater chance of high risk behavior. For female twins, sometimes this dynamic results in anorexia. Twins will compete to see who can become "the thin twin" and this can result in one becoming so ill that her identity now becomes "the sick twin". In this twisted way of thinking, the sick twin is saying "I may be destroying myself, but at least I'm different than my sister".

College attendance is another rite of passage where we, as parents, can take a stand for our children's individuality. For parents it can be so much easier to just send our kids to one school, and have them on the same sports teams, and hang out with the same group of friends; but is this really helping our children? Dr. Friedman told me the story of twin girls who had always been in the same classes their whole lives and when time for college came their mother encouraged them to attend the same school once again. This scenario worked well for one daughter, but the other was so angry about it that the two girls didn't speak until, by chance, they were separated for a year by the way the school happened to run it's junior year. This time apart allowed them to miss each other, have their own lives and then re-define their adult relationship based on being two individual women who happen to be sisters. They had never been given a chance to know each other that way and it was just what they needed to cement their sisterly bond.

Who Do You Love Most?
One of the hardest things that twins who have never had separate lives have to deal with is the introduction of a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse into the picture. This is particularly difficult when one twin is involved with someone and the other is not. Often the unattached twin is angry, jealous, and can't tolerate feeling left out so they either consciously or unconsciously try to sabotage the other's relationship. The twin who has the relationship is torn between feeling entitled to her own experience, yet guilty because she knows it is devastating to her co-twin. Different age siblings don't have this exact experience; they may have some jealousy, but they don't have the "why are you choosing him over me?" feeling. The twin who marries has an extreme loyalty conflict and has to work overtime to prepare their spouse for this. This is why we often hear of twins marrying twins; they already understand and accept not being the preferred person and confidant!

Dr. Friedman writes at the end of "Emotionally Healthy Twins":

" As I came to understand that a childhood connection is different from an adult connection, I realized that my relationship with Jane [her identical twin sister] had to be redefined. Adults are more capable of self reflection, more able to articulate their own experiences, more capable of taking responsibility for their feelings and actions, and more perceptive about themselves and others. And all of these skills require an increasing sense of self-confidence and self-awareness. Young adults who aren't twins have a tough enough time with all of this, and for twins the challenge is considerably greater. For twins who grew up with an unhealthy enmeshed connection, like Jane and me, developing those skills is more daunting still."

Growing up a twin can be both difficult and an extraordinary experience. As a parent to twins, it is entirely possible to nurture their individuality yet cherish their twinship. The word "twin" has so many connotations, we often forget that it also is simply just being a brother or sister to someone else. By allowing your children to be both twins and siblings, and you will have children who relish their bond and celebrate their uniqueness.

Thanks for reading!
The Twin Coach

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Anonymous said...

I have two year old twin boys and a seven week old baby boy. I read Dr Friedman's book when my twins were very young and I responded to it immediately. My twins were so uniquely different right from Day 1 and we treated them differently and related to them differently and we still do.

One of my boys felt very uncomfortable doing Gymbaroo, the other loved it. So we continued with the one who loved it and who also now does Jungle Cubs with his Dad while the other one stays home and makes endless cups of pretend tea for his Mum and baby brother. Both are very happy having one on one attention with their parents and being involved in an activity that suits them. Friends often remark or question, why is one doing an extra activity and the other not and I patiently explain that they are different children with different needs and interests.

I coach elite athletes and the way I treat my athletes is the way I treat my kids. They may have the same goals but each athlete responds differently and requires an individualised program to reach that goal and for them to perform at their best. I find that I need to spend time to get to know that athlete for a good 12 months before I can really find a suitable program that works for them. My kids are no different. Spending time with them individually allows me to find out what works for them and what doesn't.

I wouldn't say that our household is always calm; certainly not the case, but we do recognise when the bickering and whinging gets out of control that we have to reassess and work out if each child's individual needs are being met and this even relates to the way each child responds to different forms of discipline. For eg: one child will burst into tears at the slightest reprimand while it totally goes over the other's head and we had to introduce 1,2,3, magic for that child; works a dream.

They love being twins, the company, constant companion and friendship but they also love time on their own and being their own person and we wouldn't have it any other way.


Unknown said...

So, how do you cope with these adult dynamics when the twin's wife decides that they need "twin time" and insists that they take vacations together (without their families)?? I am so tired of this. My husband is not allowed to be an individual because of her, but at the same time he does not mind because he is close with his brother. Their parents raised them as individuals, but SHE over identifies them as twins to the point that I hardly get to see him on birthdays, trips for just them are frequently planned, etc... I am such an outsider here and i feel like I have a part time husband. I hate this and I dont know how many more of the situations I can handle without blowing up. Any reading or otherwise would be greatly appreciated.

Gina Osher said...

That is such an interesting situation, and it sounds very unpleasant for you. Have you spoken with your husband about how unhappy this set up makes you? It seems to me that he really is the one who needs to handle the situation and is the one who needs to put you first. Putting his marriage as a priority doesn't mean he's denying his bond with his brother. But he has to be the one to put his foot down with your SIL. If you do it, you end up looking like you are trying to break the brothers up or are risking becoming more of the "outsider". I think you really have to tell him how you feel.

I love Joan Friedman's book. Joan is not only the mother of twins, but is an identical twin herself. She really understands the complex dynamics. She's also just finished a second book on adult twins and the results of not individuating. I think she would be an excellent resource for you to be in touch with. If you are not in Los Angeles, I am sure she would have a consultation with you by phone. You can contact her at either 310.394.9595 or Joan@JoanAFriedmanPhD.com

Her latest book (which doesn't yet have a publisher as far as I know) is perhaps the only one I know of the discusses the twin relationship beyond childhood. There is also a book by Abigail Pogrebin called One and The Same (she is also an identical twin) and she interviews a lot of adult twins, but it is less advice driven & more stories...however, it might provide you with insight.

Start with Dr. Friedman & see where that takes you. I think she'll have the answers you're looking for. Best of luck & do let me know what happens!
I hope I have been of some help.
- Gina (the Twin Coach)

Anonymous said...

I look forward to the publication of Joan's second book. I've been looking for studies about twins as adults, in particular the issues of attachment, intimacy, and finding a mate. I'm curious to know if the twinship prepares a twin for an intimate relationship with someone else or if it sets an unattainable standard for closeness with another. Maybe both?

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