Greatest rivals: best of friends.

Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and Telegraph columnist, on her new book which examines sibling relationships

What’s the longest relationship you’ll ever have? When asked this question, most people will tell you it’s with their parents, or perhaps with their children. But in truth, that’s almost never the case. The longest relationships we’re likely to have are with our siblings.

And not only are they our longest relationships. Because sibling relationships are usually established when we’re quite young, what we learn as we negotiate life with them lays down the foundations for our interactions with everyone else – classmates, friends, colleagues, partners – throughout the rest of our lives.

That’s why I think it’s high time we start thinking about sibling relationships as something much more than simply how to introduce a new baby to an older sibling or how to manage sibling rivalry in young children. Sibling relationships underpin our social skills, the way we subsequently relate to everyone else. Furthermore, our siblings know us better than almost anyone ever will – and nowadays, when many of us are living longer and life is changing faster than ever before, that longest connection gives us a sense of continuity, a way of understanding ourselves and remembering who we really are.

Finally, there are now many reasons why we’re likely to interact with our siblings not just as children, but throughout our lives – for example, when twenty somethings who have younger brothers or sisters come back to the family home as ‘returners’, or when as middle-aged or older adults we must come together to look after our parents for a time.In my new book, Siblings, I discuss a number of situations that individuals in my clinics increasingly wish to talk through – not just how to deal with returners and their younger siblings or how to bring siblings together to care for elderly parents, but a number of other situations as well. For example, is harmony possible when siblings and step-siblings live together, and if so, how can it be achieved? Do twins really enjoy a ‘special relationship’, and how do their other siblings relate to them? How does everyone in the family cope when one child has a chronic disease? And how can bonds remain strong and positive between siblings when one receives huge attention because they have an outstanding talent?

In addition to the many ‘special’ sibling situations, there’s also a section on what influences the nature of sibling relationships – age differences and gender distribution, how many children are in the family, parenting style, whether parents separate, whether the family moves home, and so on. I also describe the factors that make for a strong and positive relationship between any two people, and how siblings can learn to get on even when they’re incredibly different.

“Sibling relationships underpin our social skills, the way we subsequently relate to everyone else”

Here, then, as a taster, are some of the ways parents can ensure that their children have the best chance of getting on well – not just as young children, but for the rest of their lives.

1: Be a good role model

In comparison with what you say, what you do will influence your children’s behaviour far more in the long term. Show them how best to get along by trying always to treat others courteously and with respect. When they want to talk give them your full attention, and when you don’t agree, rather than becoming emotional and insisting on your own viewpoint, simply listen quietly. When you do give an opinion, present it simply and calmly. There’s no need to elaborate.

2: Make ‘time to talk’ a regular part of family life

Children who grow up sharing what’s going on in their lives are likely to continue doing so as adults. Establish regular occasions when it’s natural to talk – for example, share a family meal at least twice a week.

3: Spend more time showing them what ‘to do’ than reprimanding them for what ‘not to do’

Children aren’t born knowing how to behave appropriately. This is something they need to learn. When siblings quarrel, rather than simply scolding one or both, suggest and/or show them a better way of resolving their differences.

4: Calm down first, talk later

If we try to find a solution to our differences while we’re still angry or upset, logic is overshadowed by emotion and the solution rarely works or feels fair in the long run. When your children are in the midst of a quarrel, simply separate them and ask them to calm down, without blaming anyone. When all is calm, ask each to describe the problem from their point of view while the other listens, and then help them find a compromise.

5: Establish family traditions

Celebrate Christmas and birthdays in the same ways every year, and try to have an annual holiday in the same place or same area. When they’re grown up, siblings will look back on these traditions (however much they trivialise them at the time) and enjoy reminiscing about what happened when. Many will also take their own families on holiday together to their childhood spots, which allows the siblings to stay in touch and the cousins to grow up knowing one another, thus increasing everyone’s network of support.