Kids Fighting – A Referee for the Jungle

Today’s post is from Dr Brenda Heyworth (B.Med. F.R.A.N.Z.C.P).  Heyworth has specialised in child and adolescent psychiatry for 11 years, and has developed the ‘Jungle’ analogy for children’s emotions and behaviour that has implications for understanding the behaviour of us all.

Dr Heyworth is a frequent speaker at local and state government child behaviour workshops and regularly holds her own seminars discussing strategies to manage and understand child and adolescent behavioural issues.

Her book, It’s a Jungle—A Parents’ Guide to Emotions and Behaviour is available via the website, or by contacting Dr Heyworth’s office by phone (07) 5476 3477 or email


Siblings can be great playmates and have lots of fun but what can we do when the fun turns into fight? In the blink of an eye, someone feels hard done by and it turns into arguments, insults, name calling, screaming or hitting. What went wrong?

The simple answer is that someone crossed a line. Their emotions got big and they entered the jungle. It’s a primitive world which runs on instinct and is there within us all. It’s a place where emotions are overwhelming and instinct says, ‘If in doubt, come out fighting’. The Law of the Jungle says, ‘Whoever Does it Best Wins’, so it’s no wonder that when siblings fight, they try to throw the nastiest insult, shout the loudest or hit the hardest. That’s how the jungle works!

Siblings instinctively know how to fight jungle style, but they need to learn a more civilised approach. We can help them, but first we have to hold ourselves back from crossing that line. Only then can we show them the way back from the wild jungle.

The jungle is a very emotional place. Children enter it when their emotions are bigger than they can handle. Frustration, anger, disappointment, embarrassment, jealousy, guilt and even excitement can tip them into overload, then into the jungle they swing.

When our children fight, it’s natural that we get emotional too; whether it’s frustration at the thought of ‘here we go again,’ or embarrassment, that they’re doing it in the supermarket while everyone is watching. Inside us is that same instinct to ‘Come out Fighting’ and it takes a lot of self control not to step over the line with them. When we lecture, use the guilt trip, shout or smack, we’ve also crossed the line into jungle territory and it doesn’t help them settle. It can even make them fight harder. We have to find a way to stay out of the jungle!

It helps to think like a referee in these situations, because a rule-consequence-fresh start can deal with mistakes and misdeeds both on and off the field. Whenever a rule gets broken, the referee stays calm, stays out of the jungle and follows through with a rule, consequence then ‘fresh start’.

A RULE – needs to be clear and it helps to summarise with four words or less. ‘No Hitting’, ‘No Insults’ and ‘No swearing’ are good examples.

A CONSEQUENCE – needs to be fast and fair. It provides the way to get past the mistake, just like in soccer. When a player touches the ball with their hands, the referee gives the ball to the other team. Then it’s time to get on with the game. There is no requirement for the child to feel sad or sorry or discuss what’s gone wrong. If they break a rule, they get the consequence. It’s not an emotional thing. It’s a matter of fact.

The ‘FRESH START’ – comes at that point when the consequence is done. There’s no need to stand around feeling miserable or even to apologise. It’s over and done. Let’s move on.

At home, the best consequence is TIME and SPACE. This translates into ‘5 minutes-fresh start’. A child over 5 years old has to spend 5 minutes in their bedroom. Then we call out ‘fresh start’, which means it’s over and we’re not going to carry it any further. For children under 5, the time is much shorter and we always follow it with a hug. They have to spend 20-30 seconds at a ‘time spot’ nearby, and then we give them a ‘fresh start hug’.

Of course rules are going to get broken when children play, but the referee can deal with it by applying the rule-consequence-fresh start. The referee never loads emotion onto the situation with a guilt trip or lecture.  Imagine what it would be like if the referee insisted that the game couldn’t continue until the player admitted to everyone what he’d done wrong, gave a sincere apology to all players, then stated how he’d behave better next time!

When dealing with sibling fights, we can be the referee and it doesn’t have to get complicated. They might lie and moan about who started it, but that’s just jungle. It’s important we don’t get caught in this. Whoever broke a rule gets a consequence. If she teased him, she gets a consequence. If he retaliated by hitting her, he gets a consequence.

When brothers play wrestle, it can be hard to tell whether it’s at the level of fun or fight. What’s fun for one may not be fun for the other. We can have a rule which says, ’Enough is Enough’. Anyone can simply say, ‘Enough’, whenever they’re at that point and this has to be respected. If someone keeps going beyond that point, they’ve broken a rule and the referee steps in to send the rule-breaker to 5minutes-fresh start. Once the 5 minutes is done, the referee calls ‘fresh start’. It’s all over and left behind.

Whether for soccer or children’s play, the referee is there to help deal with the situation when rules get broken. If we want the game to run smoothly, we have to remember:

  1. Stay out of the jungle
  2. Rule-Consequence-Fresh Start.

Thanks to Dr Heyworth for sharing her strategies to deal with sibling fighting. While long time readers of the blog will know that time out is not a strategy I use with my kids, I really like the concept of a “rule, consequence, fresh start”. I will work on adapting the “fresh start” element in our home to something I feel comfortable with. The ability to move on after events is a great life skill for kids to have – the more practice they have at it the better!”

What strategies do you implement when the kids are fighting?