When to Referee Your Children’s Fights—And How To Do It Right

There’s a family photo of me as a baby bearing a mischievous, devilish grin as I swat at my sister, just 18 months older than me. Growing up, I can remember my mother making the same comment each time that picture made its way to the top of a photo stack: “Fighting since day one,” she’d say. And I guess that was true.

Over the years, we argued over everything, from books to bikes to a shared best friend. Many slammed doors, hurt feelings, and weaponized words later, I’m watching the same dynamic play out with my own girls. At 7 and 3 years old, my daughters can screech and squeal with the best of them, hurling Calico Critters and crayons and reducing each other to pitiful tears.

For anyone who parents siblings who fight as fiercely as they love one another, knowing when to step in to wave the white flag can be a real head-scratcher. That’s why I brought in the experts, two parenting coaches who offered simple and practical advice for navigating life with a set of squabbling siblings.

 

Choose Your Battles

Danielle Bettmann, a positive parenting coach, encouraged readers to act less like referees and more like coaches. “You are teaching and guiding and giving feedback like a soccer coach,” she said. “Do coaches have to insert themselves into every play? No. But they keep the game going and build on existing skills.”

Bettmann advised parents to adopt two rules of thumb for knowing when to intervene in sibling quarrels: when it’s to help kids respect boundaries or to ensure everyone’s safety.

 

 

Embrace Conflict

Iris Chen, author and founder of the Untigering Movement, pushed parents to see moments of conflict as opportunities for growth and learning. “The goal should never be to just break up the fight so the whining, arguing, and crying will stop,” she said. “Those are only temporary Band-Aid solutions that don’t help our kids in the long run. We need to also equip them with [the skills] to do conflict well.”

 

The goal should never be to just break up the fight so the whining, arguing, and crying will stop. Those are only temporary Band-Aid solutions that don’t help our kids in the long run.

 

Instead of threatening kids into resolution with punishments, Chen suggested teaching them two important skills: setting and verbalizing boundaries and problem solving. Invite kids to brainstorm solutions alongside you, offering prompts like, “Your baby brother keeps knocking down your blocks. I know that’s so frustrating. He wants to play too, but he doesn’t know how to stack blocks yet. What can we do so you both have fun?” suggested Chen.

 

Don’t Play Judge and Jury

Chen warned that jumping in to referee a fight can add fuel to the fire, as you’re assigning blame and invalidating feelings and experiences. When it’s time to get involved, she recommended avoiding punishments or forcing apologies. “Instead, we can be present to facilitate discussion and problem solving with an attitude of compassion and non-judgment. We can give each of them opportunities to share their perspectives and feelings as we listen with empathy,” she said. “We can remind them of our values and teach them appropriate ways to get their needs met.”

 

Work Together

Bettmann reminded me that jumping into sibling arguments is not about eliminating conflict. Instead, she said, it’s about giving our children the skills they need to deal with conflict effectively. Bettmann offered a three-step plan: Work with your little ones to identify the issue, understand the facts of the situation, and collaborate on a solution.

“Decide together how to move forward, either by using a timer, finding a replacement, taking a break, or any other agreed-upon option,” Bettmann said. “Help them carry it out but keep the responsibility on them.”

 

 

Be Proactive

To Chen, getting involved before conflict strikes is even more important than smoothing ruffled feathers after the fact. She suggested reading the room and noticing when emotions are running high. Then, call for a time-out to go over your family’s rules and expectations for safety and respect.

 

The investment and energy we put into teaching our kids about empathy, boundaries, bodily autonomy, emotions, respect, and non-violence in our everyday lives help lay the foundation [we need] when conflicts inevitably arise.

 

“Giving them the tools to deal with conflict before things get out of hand is actually more effective than waiting until the heat of the moment,” she said. “The investment and energy we put into teaching our kids about empathy, boundaries, bodily autonomy, emotions, respect, and non-violence in our everyday lives help lay the foundation [we need] when conflicts inevitably arise.”

 

Cut Your Oldest Some Slack

Both Chen and Bettmann agreed that when it comes to conflict management at home, the oldest kids often bear the brunt of our expectations. How many times have we looked to our older and supposedly wiser children to model good behavior or lead by example? Bettmann cautioned that doing so can stir up resentment.

“They are still little,” she said. “Their prefrontal cortex is still developing, and even if they have an extensive, expressive vocabulary, they struggle with the same impulse control and egocentric tendencies as their younger siblings. Acknowledge their growth but leave space for failure.”

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