Dear David Coleman: One of my twin girls is nasty to the quieter one
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. I need help with my twin seven-year-old girls. Twin one is the more dominant of the two and is a physical child, so excels in running, learning to cycle, and outdoor games. Her sister is quieter and loves reading and drawing, which she is really good at. But twin one's moods affect our whole house. When she is in good form, it's like a beautifully sunny day in the house. However, when she is cranky or jealous of her sister, it's like being stuck in the middle of a tornado. She is particularly harsh with her sister, and can be quite nasty to her.
David replies: Sibling rivalry is a real thing in families. Usually we think of twins having a special bond, and being best friends for each other, but there is no reason that rivalry can't exist between them too.
From what you write, it seems like one of your twins, the one who is active, outdoorsy and more emotionally volatile (twin one as you refer to her), gets quite jealous of her sister (twin two), who seems to be much more aligned with what most gender stereotypes of girls suggest are typical girl behaviours of being quieter, loving to read and draw.
Twin one sounds like she feels that her sister may be more loved, or appreciated, than she is herself. While this is only her perception of things, it is always possible that there is a hint of truth to it. Maybe twin two's calmer attributes and pastimes are easier to accommodate in a busy family? Maybe twin two gets more positive acknowledgement for how she is or what she does.
Most parents will say, hand on heart, that they love all their children equally, and they will most likely mean it and believe it. In truth, though, we can't love all our children equally because they are not all the same. Because they are different we love them differently. So, it is usually the case that different children do get treated differently.
While our intention may be to treat them all the same, their experience is that their treatment is differentiated. For example, if twin one is emotionally intense and experiences quite wide variations in her moods, from excitedly happy to grumpily cranky, she probably requires much more engagement from you than her sister, whose moods seem much more even.
Twin one may experience your responses to her as more negative, since you may have to curb her more energetic or bad-tempered outbursts. Twin two, on the other hand, probably flies under the radar, so to speak, drawing much less negative attention to herself.
So, even if your intention is to love each of the twins the same, twin one may have a different perception. In terms of how she then responds, her perception will be more influential than your intention. If she feels that you love her sister more, it may fuel her sense of rivalry.
In such situations, it is not unexpected to find that she takes out any jealousy on her sister. Subconsciously, she may be cross with you because you have to give out to her more, but it is dangerous to be actively cross with you because if she does she takes the risk of being rejected, or even cast out.
Her anger may then be displaced onto her sister, whom she then treats in a "harsh" and "nasty" way, as you describe.
The irony for her is that being mean to her sister can only increase the potential for her to be seen as "bold" while here sister is seen as a helpless victim.
I think you might want to give twin one an opportunity to vent, properly, about what she thinks about twin two, giving space for both positive and negative feelings.
In their book Siblings Without Rivalry (a great book!), authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish talk about the concept that it isn't until the bad feelings come out that the good feelings can get back in.
Twin one might need to know that you can properly empathise with her feelings about her sister. While you might not agree with her perceptions, it is important that you can accept that they are valid feelings for her to have. It might also help you to understand ways in which you need to change, especially if you get new insight into how your actions or responses impact on twin one.
With that understanding, you might then be able to help her recognise the positives and create a forum where any future disgruntlement can be explained to you, rather than getting taken out on her sister.
It also creates a space for you to be able to talk to twin one about the unique things you love about her.
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