Kids fighting: the basics

Disagreements among children are very common – they’re just part of growing up in a family. Fighting happens when a disagreement becomes aggressive – for example, when it involves shouting or hitting.

Fights often start when children see a situation as unfair, or when children are trying to assert what they think are their rights.

Sometimes you see children fighting because they view the same situation in different ways. For example, an older child might be teasing a younger child in what he thinks is a funny way, but the younger child might not like it.

And sometimes siblings get into conflict as they compete with each other for their parents’ attention or approval. The closer siblings are in age, the more they tend to fight.

The good news about fighting kids

Disagreements and fights can be a great chance for your children to practise the social skills they’ll need as adults.

When disagreements between children get worked out fairly and without anyone getting hurt, children start to build problem-solving skills like negotiating. They also learn the importance of seeing another person’s point of view and respecting other people’s rights, feelings and belongings.

There’ll be less fighting as your children grow and develop better social skills.

If you need to handle a fight, it’s important to stop things before anyone gets hurt. Let everyone cool down before you talk about solutions or consequences.

How temperament affects kids fighting

Some kids seem to fight more than others. This might be because of their temperaments – the inborn parts of their personalities.

Some people are quicker to anger than others, or less able to control angry feelings. It’s not always easy for grown-ups to resolve conflict without resorting to bad behaviour – imagine how much harder it is for children.

Children aren’t born knowing how to handle disagreements. But all children can learn how to behave so that fighting is less likely to happen. For example, fair rules, routines and praise guide your children towards better ways of resolving conflict.

How environment affects kids fighting

Children learn how to sort out differences by watching and copying behaviour they see in their environments.

So if children see you sorting out your differences in positive ways, they’ll learn to behave this way too. This is called modelling good behaviour. You can model behaviour like:

  • cooperating
  • staying calm when you’re angry
  • checking the facts before you act
  • reacting in a way that’s appropriate to the situation
  • listening to other people’s points of view.

Children learn from negative behaviour too. If parents discipline children by smacking, children are more likely to smack their brothers, sisters, friends – or even their parents. They’re also more likely to choose fighting if:

  • they constantly see people being aggressive towards each other, particularly their parents, bigger brothers and sisters, and friends
  • they get what they want by pushing, shoving or fighting
  • their parents don’t set consistent limits on fighting or aggression
  • they see lots of violence on TV, at the movies and in video games.

Children learn these lessons from a very young age. But they might not start cooperating and sharing before they’re two. And they might be three before you see these lessons really being put to use.

How age and skills affect kids fighting

The way children handle conflict is partly determined by their ages and skill levels. For example, it’s common for young children to behave aggressively. This usually changes as they grow and learn better ways of resolving conflict.

Children aged under 2 years:

  • tend to fight over objects, like toys, and become very frustrated if something they want is taken away
  • struggle with taking turns, and don’t yet understand why they have to follow rules and instructions
  • can’t reason with other children or explain how they feel, so they’re more likely to show anger in physical ways like pushing.

Children aged 3-4 years are:

  • starting to cooperate, share and take turns – all of which will eventually lead to fewer fights
  • still likely to need support, reminders and positive feedback.

Children aged 5-7 years are:

  • starting to master skills like sharing, taking turns, compromising and talking through options
  • much better at sorting out problems without needing grown-ups to step in, although they still need encouragement.

Children aged 8-12 years:

  • tend to be less physical, but have more verbal disagreements and fights than younger children
  • are becoming much more social, and want to get along with other children in groups.
If you’re finding it hard to handle the way your children fight, you’re not alone. Fights are a common reason for families to seek professional help. It might help to talk with a professional like a paediatrician or psychologist.