Home|About Us|Multiple Birth Resources|Free Articles|The Art of Parenting Twins|

Limit Setting with Twins

     Reproduced with permission from Twin Services,
Parent Education Series 300: #360

A large proportion of the telephone calls we have answered on our TWINLINE have come from parents struggling with "limit setting," or discipline. Their questions usually relate to three general situations:

  • I say "no" to my twins and they keep on doing whatever it is they were doing.

  • I tell my kids to do something and they say "no."

  • My twins are hitting/biting/pushing, pulling hair, and/or grabbing toys from each other.

These typical scenarios are often made more dramatic by an accompanying temper tantrum, especially when a parent must take a knife, porcelain vase or TV remote control away from the eager explorers.

Limit setting is another name for the continuous task (often better described as battle!) of protecting your children from danger, your possessions from destruction, and keeping your twins' behavior within the bounds of modern civilization. Children need limits in order to feel safe and be safe in the world around them (sometimes to keep the world safe from them!), and in order to feel safe with their own uncontrollable emotions and behavior.

The need for physical safety is obvious, though it may be very hard to actually assure it. We put up safety gates, lock away chemicals and medicines, hold our twins' hands when we walk down the street. Emotional safety is harder to perceive and, often, harder to provide. Young children, especially in the toddler years, experience their emotions very intensely: their joy is unbounded, their rage is fearsome! They themselves can get very frightened by the intensity and explosiveness of their feelings. They need adults to set limits regarding how to express these emotions, and to keep them from hurting others (their co-twin is an especially likely candidate) or themselves when they are overwhelmed by anger and frustration.

Making the world as safe as possible, physically and emotionally, is obviously one of the major roles of a parent. Children derive their sense of security initially from the adults around them. If the adults make the environment safe in a nurturing, protective way, children can build their own sense of safety and confidence.

Be Authoritative

There are many ways parents set limits for their children. The three basic styles are:

  • Authoritarian: highly rigid, demanding complete obedience

  • Permissive: setting a minimum of rules and enforcing the rules erratically, frequently "giving in" to the needs of the moment (this style often evolves as a response to being brought up in an authoritarian style).

  • Authoritative: setting clear, consistent rules which still allow a broad range of acceptable behaviors.

Studies have shown that children fare best when brought up with an authoritative limit setting style. This style promotes the optimal balance between self control ("obedience") on the one hand, and initiative, creativity and responsibility on the other.

Limit setting must be understood by parents as an integral part of the separation-individuation process-the process whereby each twin becomes an independent person. As a child begins to be mobile and move away physically, limits to prevent physical danger are needed. As independent personalities and self determination evolve, beginning with the birth of "no," limits on acceptable behavior are called for.

Twins pose a particularly difficult challenge in several ways:

1. Twins often move in opposite directions at once, both physically and emotionally.

2. Twins may develop at different rates.

3. Twins must accomplish a double separation process: they must separate from parents as well as from each other in order to create their own identities.

4. The twin relationship often leads to many confrontations which require limits set on aggression, often at a much earlier age (8- 12 months) than with a single child-before the twins have reached the cognitive and linguistic level needed in order to understand rules about not hurting others.

5 .Once the twins have reached the age of "the quest for justice" (over four years old), limits set in response to each twin's needs, as opposed to a group rule, often lead to complaints and struggles about "fairness." Since children's concepts of justice and fairness are simplistic, parents often must agree that something is not "fair" (that is, you are not treating the twins exactly equally), but it is right.

Limit setting ought to be done in a manner that is accepting, age appropriate, consistent and firm.

1."Accepting" means recognizing that it is inherent in the development of a toddler that she try to master leaping from the top of the dresser, while not allowing her to do it. It also means realizing that she may throw a tantrum when you take her down from the dresser. It is very hard for parents to maintain the distinction between accepting that a certain behavior is natural or common and allowing it to go on.

2.Age-appropriate limit setting means knowing what "fits the age" in terms of behavior, cognitive ability and language. Thus, a 16-month-old twin knows the meaning of the word "no," but does not have the self control to stop himself from trying to pull the lamp down over his head. The situation is just too enticing, the impulse to pull too strong to resist.

3.Finally, limit setting must be consistent and firm: all adults in the family must agree to the same "rules" and stick to them, with gradual modifications as children mature.

Taming Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums, starting at around 18 months, are toddlers' most common response to frustrations and limit setting. It is important to realize that tantrums are an integral part of the process of developing independence while remaining within the rules set by the parents. Tantrums should be handled by helping the child to verbalize the anger ("I know you are angry because mommy took away the scissors, but you cannot have them because it is not safe") and staying with the child, helping her to calm down by talking and holding. Keep her and others safe- hold her if necessary and don't let her throw objects, or bang her head on the floor. Later on, after the storm, teach the words she needs to express her feelings such as "mad", "angry", "sad", "upset."

Finally, don't give in! Don't change the rule or let her have something you took away just to stop the tantrum. Distractions and humor (acting silly) can often shorten the duration of a tantrum.

Especially with toddlers whose language is still not very developed but whose determination to do "by self" is at its peak, you can often avoid tantrums by giving a choice between two options that are equally acceptable to you. So, if you ask your twin to put on "this shirt" you're in for a struggle, but if you offer him the choice between a red one and a blue one, he'll be happy to exercise his power and independence and make a choice. More than two options can be overwhelming for a two year-old, so stick to two simple possibilities.

Aggression between Twins

Dealing with aggression between twins is often the hardest task for parent. They wonder how much they should intervene in fights, how much to protect the "victim," and worry when one twin is always the aggressor. The first rule in the family must be that it is the parents' job to protect each child from hunt. The second rule is that no one may hunt people or animals. When children feel overwhelmed by aggression, they should be provided with an outlet such as hitting/biting a pillow or punching bag, because "things" do not feel hurt.

Fighting over toys is generally the starting point for aggression. Teaching her means such as "trading" and "taking turns" gradually provides twins with the skills to share in peaceful co-existence.

Older twins may engage in less overt aggression, but tax their parents' patience with endless arguing. Arguing, within reasonable limits, has some important psychological functions. It is part of the process of twin individuation, and it deflects some of the tension that in singleton families would exist between parent and child (as well as siblings). It also gives twins the unusual opportunity of struggling with an equal as opposed to a parent or order sibling who has more power in the family, or a younger sibling who will, naturally, be more protected by the parents. Parents should set limits on arguing such as no physical fights, no obscenities, or no fighting during dinner, but should refrain from forbidding or intervening in every argument.

Parents are the models for their children. When it comes to limit setting, the best teaching is by example. Stick to the rules you set for your children and for yourself. Be clear, consistent and reassuring. Demonstrate through your behavior that anger is a real part of life that you try to deal with through words, not explosions. You set a good example when you say "I am too angry right now to really deal with the consequences of what you did. We'll talk about it when we have all cooled off."

When you find that too often you are explosive or cannot stick by the rules, you may need outside help in order to set limits successfully. Get help from a spouse, a supportive friend or family member, or organizations providing professional guidance.

This article may be printed out for personal use but may not be reproduced in any other manner, including electronic, without prior written consent from Twin Services. For more information, call 510-524-0863.or e-mail




The information in this article is not a substitute for professional medical or psychological advice. Please consult with your health care advisor about specific questions or problems.

Twin Services Consulting


Copyright � Twin Services 1978-2017.