A Quest for Independence: When Twins Enter Middle School

Ever since my fraternal twin sons hit middle school a year ago, I’ve noticed a change in them. Yes, their voices are beginning to get that adolescent squeak, and yes, they’re beginning to grow as tall as weeds, but it’s something else.

They’re bickering with each other. A lot.

I realize that much of it is associated with just being brothers and always wanting to outdo each other. But it’s something more. It’s their twinship and their increasing need to be seen as different from each other.

Middle-School Madness

The middle-school years bring huge changes for all children as they begin to mature into young adults. It’s a time when a parent’s advice means less and a friend’s opinion matters more. It’s also a time of growing independence and there in lies the twin conundrum—multiples must not only learn to break free from their parents but they must also separate from their cotwins. Furthermore, some twins have grown tired of the constant comparisons and labels that friends and family have used to help differentiate between the two. Being in the shadow of “the smart one,” or the “athletic twin,” eventually takes its toll. For these multiples, the middle-school years simply heighten their need to be seen as their own person, but it can be a bumpy ride for the whole family.

Identical twin girls holding school books

“At this point in life, having a peer group is more important than being a twin,” explains Dr. Joan Friedman, a psychoanalyst and educator specializing in twin issues, and the author of Emotionally Healthy Twins: A New Philosophy for Parenting Two Unique Children. Friedman says that twin squabbles are common as they reach junior high, and although annoying, they should be viewed in a positive light as it usually means your twins are simply showing their wish for freedom. Middle school is a great opportunity for many twins to reinvent themselves, too. With a whole new peer group from which to draw as well as new clubs, sports, and activities, many twins find that they can finally shed their old labels and start fresh.

When One Twin Isn’t Ready for Separation

Yet some children continue to feel strongly attached to their twinship even though their cotwins have moved on making new friends. For a parent, it can be difficult to watch as one twin becomes clingy while the other backs away. But it’s important to help the struggling twin overcome her co-dependency and strike out on her own. “It’s good to have individual experiences, knowing your own needs and when other people have needs,” Friedman explains. “It’s not exclusion or a rejection; it’s an appreciation for another person’s needs or feelings.”

And no where is the feeling of rejection more palpable than when one twin chooses to hang out with a new best friend, excluding her cotwin.

“Sometimes there’s friction in their relationship regarding their friends,” says Teri Howland of her fraternal twin daughters who’ll be entering ninth grade this fall. Last year when Krystal and Kandice went on a school trip to Washington D.C., for instance, the sisters shared a hotel room with two other girls, one of whom is Kandice’s best friend. “There were times when Kandice and her friend ignored Krystal and told her they didn’t want to hang out together,” explains the Bellflower, Calif. mom. “Unfortunately, it got to a point where I had to step in and tell them to sit down and talk it out or they would have a miserable time on the remainder of their trip.”

Yet Friedman says that best friend possessiveness is normal. “Why would you want to share your best friend? A singleton doesn’t believe that. Yet twins feel really guilty when one wants to get away and the other one doesn’t,” she adds.

Sympathizing with both parties but ultimately letting the twins work out their differences on their own—as Howland did—is the best way to proceed. “Parents have to respect that one twin wants to be by herself. That she wants to be independent and not tied to or possessed by her sister,” Friedman says. “If she doesn’t get permission from her parents to go off on her own, the parents are basically saying, ‘What you want and need isn’t important. The twinship is the most important thing.’”

Parents should also think twice about encouraging one twin to include the other during weekend sleepovers. Instead, try to help your twins embrace the idea that they’re allowed to be exclusionary if they choose. Remind the excluded twin that she, too, will have a turn next time.

Obviously opposite-sex twins have it a bit easier. Boys and girls naturally congregate to their own sex during the middle-school years. The result is usually less friction in the household than families with same-sex twins. “David and Dana have always been close,” Betsy Hopkins of Rosalyn, Penn. says of her thirteen-year-old twins. “They still hang out together with their friends but given the choice the other would not be around when one of their friends is over. They like and do their own things.”

Practical Matters

When it comes time to purchase a cell phone for your kids, buy two. One cell phone sends the message that twins are a unit, and are not expected to spend time apart. “Since it’s not a large expense to get another phone and another number, I find that it’s a great opportunity to easily help reinforce that twins are two people,” Friedman explains. “Wouldn’t you like to have your own phone number? I understand not getting two phones from a practical point of view but what about from an emotional point of view?”

And that’s exactly how Alison Myers sees it. When it came time to give her identical twin daughters, Emily and Kayla, cell phones, this East Berlin, Penn. mom didn’t hesitate to buy an extra. “When one got a cell phone because she was in sports and we wanted her to be able to contact us from an away-game, the logical thing was to also get one for the other twin because there would have been resentment from the one who didn’t get one even though she really didn’t need a phone at the time.”

Hand-me-downs and clothes swapping are two other areas that can cause conflict for some multiple families. Just ask the Anne Smith of Albany, New York. Although two of her ninth-grade fraternal triplet daughters are the same size, the third triplet is quite a bit smaller than her sisters. “When they were babies I assigned each a color for their clothes and tried to generally stick to those colored clothes for each,” Smith explains. “They became attached to their color and the color coding went on for years at their request. It got ugly for a while when they were older and they refused to wear another sister’s color.” Even boys, who generally aren’t as fashion conscious as their female counterparts, aren’t immune to the clothes-sharing blues.

“Until this year they shared a closet and therefore clothes,” says Eileen Parker of her fraternal twin sons, Aidan and John. “The only thing that ever mattered was if it was comfortable.” Yet times are also changing for these eighth-grade boys, explains their Boston, Mass. mom. “This year John has taken an interest in shopping for what he wants, so he has a few items that only he wears.” Co-twin Aidan hasn’t reached that point yet and continues to wear whatever he finds hanging in the closet! Clothes are our way of showing the world our uniqueness—our individual style—so not wanting to share clothes or accepting a larger twin’s hand-me-downs is understandable.

So what’s the best course of action? Give each child a clothing allowance each year and let her choose and buy her own clothing. Even a small allowance would suffice sending the message that you understand her need to be her own person.

Twins On the Road to Adulthood

The middle-school years are a huge time of change. Yet with a little understanding and a lot of patience, families with multiples will weather the storm just fine. Besides, you ain’t seen nothing yet! Just wait until they both ask to borrow the car!

A copy of the book Double Duty.