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Recently a reader emailed me this question about what to do when her kids are fighting ...

Q. Is it best to separate them, let them resolve the issues themselves, or be the mediator?

A. As with almost all parenting questions, the answer begins with "it depends"! There are times when each of these choices is appropriate or necessary. Here's how you can navigate this decision with wisdom!

When to Be the Mediator

It's normal for children to need lots and lots of guidance in relationship skills and conflict resolution. Pretty much everything we teach our children will involve these basic steps:

  1. I do it while you watch
  2. We do it together
  3. You do it while I watch
  4. You do it on your own

As with any skill, we should assume that our kids will need lots and lots of time in the first three steps, especially step two. So stepping in to mediate is often needed. The trick is how you step in.

When kids are fighting, there is a lot of tension. Both sides are fearful their needs won't be met or their interests protected. If "stepping in" means you huff into the room, irritated that the kids are fighting once again, bark orders about who should have the next turn and who should apologize, you will only heighten those fears and increase the tension.

If you want to truly serve as a mediator, you need to begin by bringing peace to the room. Let both children know you are on their side - the side of their relationship with each other - and that you're committed to listening before you make any decisions. Your goal isn't to pick a winner and a loser and hand out consequences. Your goal is to mediate and model healthy communication and conflict resolution.

Here are some more useful tips on being a healthy mediator in sibling conflict.

When to Separate Fighting Siblings

When conflict erupts, it's common for one or both children to be "dysregulated". What does that mean? It means that they are likely in one of two emotional extremes - either agitated or shut down. Neither of these states lends it self to healthy and respectful communication.

When you can see that emotional dysregulation is making it unlikely for a conflict to be resolved, you may need to separate your children and given them each a chance to cool down. Again, the way you go about this is essential.

If you swoop in and send each child to their room for a "time out" or issue separation as a punishment, you will not help your children to regain emotional regulation and come to a place where they are able to return to the conversation.

Instead, step in and kindly (but firmly) let them know that they are not in a place where they can have a good conversation right now and they will need to do something else while they calm down. You might suggest some options or you might need to make the decision for them, depending on their willingness to make wise choices for themselves.

Remember that emotional regulation, like other life skills, are something we learn from others. In fact, we can actually borrow or absorb emotional regulation from others when we feel safe and cared for in their presence. Each child might need a hug or a chance to sit on your lap to help their bodies return to a state of calm.

Just as with any conflict resolution skill, this is one that's helpful to teach outside of moments of conflict. Talk with your children about how we can get in a rut emotionally and we might have to step away from the situation in order to calm down. Help each of your children know themselves and have ideas about what things help them. Running around the back yard? Snuggling with a stuffie? Doing something with their hands?

This time alone isn't a punishment. It's an emotional regulation tool. It shouldn't be given a specific time limit; it only has to last as long as it takes for your child to be ready to talk calmly.

Even King David the Psalmist recognized this need for time alone when we're feeling wound up!

Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. (Psalms 4:4)

Finally, it's important to remember that separation is not a final solution. It's a temporary hiatus to help everyone regain composure so that you can come back to the conversation. Let them know that when they are ready to talk, you are ready to talk!

Note: Sometimes sibling conflict can be triggering for you as a parent, too! It's excellent modeling to say, "Mama is feeling very tense right now. I think I'd better take a moment alone to calm down before I say something I will wish I hadn't said!"

When to Let Them Work it Out

In every area of parenting, we have to consider the question of when to do something for our children and when to let them do it alone. For example, if your toddler wants to tie her own shoe, it isn't necessarily a bad idea to let her try. But if you know she's never been taught to do the task, it wouldn't be wise to leave to struggle in tears and frustration when you know she doesn't have the skills to complete the task.

The same is true of sibling conflict. If you are listening in and you can hear that your children are becoming more and more dysregulated, they may not be in a place where they can resolve the conflict on their own.

Also, if you can tell they are having a hard time coming up with any healthy communication tools to use, it might be time to step in. For example, if they have resorted to physical violence, name-calling or just an endless barrage of "No I didn't!" "Yes you did!" they aren't going to reach a healthy conclusion no matter how long you let them go at it.

You can either step in and ask them to separate for a time before trying again, or you can decide that this is a conflict that will need some more direct mediation.

There are times where siblings are in conflict, tensions might be rising, and they might not be using exactly the words you'd prefer they'd use, but the fight has not veered off course too severely to be righted. These are times when it's great to listen unobserved and keep an ear on the dialogue. Maybe you'll need to step in. But maybe they will reach a compromise on their own.

That would be a great win for sibling relationships!

Do you have a parenting question you'd like answered? Submit your question anonymously using the form linked below.

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Lynna Sutherland is the mother of eight kids ages teen to toddler. She hosts the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast and writes about sibling conflict resolution and sibling relationship building. Lynna believes that the gospel transforms sibling conflict from an obstacle to an opportunity and loves to show other parents the freedom and confidence of gospel-centered parenting.