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How to Stop Being a Referee Between Your Kids

Updated on March 30, 2012


Every parent has been in the situation where tow children are squabbling or arguing about something to the point where they must intervene (for their own sanity!). We all have had these frustrating situations with children, and sometimes it seems as if the children are upset with each other all of the time. Such behavior becomes very tiring for us as parents.

Fortunately, there are some very specific interventions that you can try using to control (and even end) this kind of maddening behavior. But remember, when you begin to try to change the behavior, the children will resist, even to the point of the original behavior getting worse for a while. Keep at it through, and their behavior will change!

Your task is to create a model for how disagreements and resentments will be handled in your household. Often, when two children are fighting, we adults step in and simply “settle” the matter with at least some impatience and autocratic approaches, as if we are circuit court judges. This only teaches the children that they never have to learn how to settle disagreements.

As soon as the disagreement appears to be coming to a stalemate (you will know because of the noise), make your intervention as follows: have both children sit down in chairs apart from each other (but in the same room) while you remain standing. Then, let each of them know that they must be quiet while you speak. Give them the following instructions: “I am going to leave the room for ten minutes for you two to settle this. Do not get up from your seats, do not yell at each other. If you do not obey this rule, both of you will have one hour in your rooms and twenty four hours without (name the privilege).” If either child disobeys the rules, send them to their room for the hour, then start over the same exact way, with the twenty four hour privilege removal still in place. Do not skip the instructions, recite them each and every time you make the intervention, because the repletion not only helps the children learn, but becomes in itself a form of negative consequence.

Notice that you do not get into the middle of the actual disagreement…do not entertain any material at this time, only direct the process. If they obey the rules you have given them, and settle their problem in ten minutes, great! If they have not yet settled the issue, give them another ten minutes, with the same rules, and tell them if they do not settle this second round, you will settle it for them. Again, if you come back and it is settled, great! If not, then proceed as follows: ask each one in turn what their problem is. Instruct that while one is talking, the other does not (this is not a debate). Each person can have all the time they want to speak when it is their turn (only one turn per person, no back and forth debate).

Once you have heard each argument, tell the children to continue sitting when you leave the room. Leave the room, even if you have already made a decision. Try to make your decision one that will not please either child, if this is appropriate. (Sometimes, one child is clearly wrong, and you must by default defend the other child). Take a minimum three minutes before you go back and tell them your binding decision.

What you have done with this intervention is to teach the children how to settle disagreements on their own. They have learned that if they involve you in this process, it may take longer, be more uncomfortable than compromise, and the decision you make will likely not please either of them.


The key to ending sibling fighting is to make this intervention every time an argument comes to your attention.

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