• Behavior
  • Parenting

It's best to back away from refereeing your kids' quarrels

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Brother and sister on a couch fighting over a remote control

In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:

1. When to ignore fights vs. intervene?
2. What could increased bickering mean?
3. What are strategies for conflict resolution?

You hear raised voices. Then yelling or crying. Before long, you’re called over to referee another argument.

Sibling bickering and rivalry are common. Can you stamp it out? Probably not, but you can manage or mitigate it.


Local family counselors advise the best offense is a good defense. Establish ground rules, such as no physical fighting or name-calling, and outline the consequences of broken rules, says Michelle Rodriguez, interim supervisor for Positive Parenting Program, known as Triple P, at the Center for Family Services of Palm Beach County. Then try to let your children work out their differences on their own.

“Don’t jump in right away,” says Dominika Nolan, director for the Institute for Clinical Training at the Center for Child Counseling in West Palm Beach. “You want your child to learn about problem-solving without your help. If they don’t learn it at home, they will not know how to solve conflicts with other children.”

If do you get involved, be objective. Both counselors say that taking sides may increase jealousy, hurt feelings and cause children to act out more to be heard.


An uptick in arguing could be a sign of jealousy, when one child may feel the other is getting more attention, Nolan says. She advises parents to never compare their children.

“Unknowingly, parents do that a lot,” she says. “We inadvertently say things like, ‘Why can’t you be more like Johnny and be good and sit down?’ I recommend parents use encouragement vs. praise. Encouragement is all about the child, while praise is about the parent’s attention and leads to comparison.  . . . We should see each child as an individual with their own strengths and weaknesses, and we want to focus on the strengths.”

Increased aggression could signal bullying or a behavioral issue, Rodriguez says.

“If a child is being bullied at school or outside the home, they may take that frustration or anger out on a sibling or a parent,” she says.


To foster understanding and resolution, parents can encourage their children to use “I” statements when explaining their sides.

“Help them identify their feelings by using the ‘I’ word, such as ‘I feel (this way) when you (do or say these things).’ For example, ‘I feel upset when you shout at me, and I want you to speak calmly to me instead’,” Nolan says.

Some strategies for younger children are using colors and self-reflection.

“Let’s say a child is not sharing the toys, and your child is arguing with them. If you use the color green to describe feeling happy; yellow to indicate getting upset; and red to say stop it right now, then you can ask your child to pick a color to identify their emotions,” Nolan says. “This helps the child understand the intensity of their feelings.

“Parents can also use reflections by saying, ‘I can see you’re feeling really sad right now. Want to talk about it?’ This is a good technique for younger children who don’t have knowledge of feelings and coping skills.”


• Michelle Rodriguez, interim supervisor for Triple P, Center for Family Services of Palm Beach County
• Dominika Nolan, director of the Institute for Clinical Training, Center for Child Counseling 



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