“Why does she always get to go to the movies and I don’t!” shrieks your 10-year-old daughter. “I’m the favorite, that’s why!” answers her 15-year-old sister. The petty back-and-forth between your girls is making you crazy. Can’t we all just get along?

Yes we can, according to Dr. Deborah Gold, assistant professor of psychiatry and sociology at Duke University. “Getting along well with our siblings is a birthright,” she suggests. So if it’s natural, why the constant sparring? Knowing the difference between sibling fights and sibling rivalry will help. Fights are about possessions and territory; rivalry is conflict as a result of parental intervention. When a parent joins in and creates a villain-versus-victim showdown, someone always loses.

Does that mean you should step aside and let your kids duke it out? As tempting as that sounds, the answer is, of course, no. Lessening rivalry takes a little more panache on your part. Here are a few tips that will help:

  • Rethink fairness. Give possessions according to need and interest. If your little dancer needs new ballet slippers, buy them. That doesn’t mean your older athlete automatically needs new tennis shoes. The playing field will level off in the end.
  • Comparison breeds competition. Martha Stewart has nothing on your eight-year-old daughter. Your 14-year-old son, on the other hand, might as well eat out of a trough. But touting your daughter’s uber-cleanliness won’t motivate your son to clean his room more often. So stop the comparisons!
  • Validate feelings. Sibling relationships are a melting pot of mixed emotions. When one is angry with another, validate her feelings. Verbalize your support by saying something like, “I know your little sister can be a pest. I’ll keep her busy when your friend is here.”
  • Promote sharing only when appropriate. Digging into a carton of Rocky Road ice cream with your little sister is fun. Sharing your new microscope with your little brother isn’t. Allow your child the joys of ownership, as well as encouraging the virtues of sharing.
  • Labels can harm. Saying “He’s our wild one” or "She's our little scholar" do much more harm than good if a sibling hears. Studies show that if you label your child, he will surely rise to the occasion. Labels are hard to shake and can place one sibling in a subordinate role to another, and that's when the trouble will start.

Sooner or later, siblings will squabble. But that doesn't mean that sibling rivalry is inevitable. If you as a parent learn to approach sibling standoffs with a level head, your kids will know the difference, and it will show.