Children’s fights: why they happen and what to expect
Disagreements among children are very common – they’re part of learning how to get along. Fighting happens when a disagreement becomes aggressive – for example, when it involves shouting or hitting. Children are still learning to control their emotions, so this isn’t unusual.
Children’s fights often start when children see a situation as unfair, are trying to assert what they think are their rights, feel that others don’t see their perspective, or view the same situation in different ways. For example, an older child might see it as a joke to tease a younger child, but the younger child might not think it’s funny.
The closer siblings are in age, the more they tend to fight.
Disagreements, fighting and problem-solving: opportunities to learn
Disagreements can be a great chance for your child to practise the social skills they’ll need as an adult. When disagreements lead to fighting, it can be an opportunity for children to learn other ways to resolve conflict, particularly if they learn that fighting doesn’t get them what they want.
When disagreements among 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 child grows and develops 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 children’s fighting
Children are born with their own temperaments, which is the way they respond to the world. For example, children might be flexible or persistent, sociable or shy. Children’s temperaments make it more or less likely that they’ll negotiate, argue or avoid conflict.
Temperament might also be why some people are quicker to anger than others or find it harder to calm themselves down. It’s not always easy for grown-ups to resolve conflict peacefully, so 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.
How environment affects children’s fighting
From a very young age, children learn how to sort out differences by watching and copying behaviour they see around them.
So if your child sees you sorting out your differences in positive ways, they’ll learn to behave this way too. This is called modelling positive behaviour. You can model behaviour like:
- staying calm or walking away to calm down if you’re overwhelmed
- listening to other people’s points of view
- checking the facts before you act
- calmly discussing possibilities for compromise
- agreeing to think about it for a while and come back later if you need to.
Children learn from negative behaviour too. If parents discipline children by smacking, children are more likely to smack their siblings or friends – or even their parents. They’re also more likely to choose fighting if they:
- see people – particularly their parents, older siblings or friends – being aggressive towards each other
- get what they want by pushing, shoving or fighting
- don’t have consistent limits on fighting or aggression
- see a lot of violence on TV, in movies, on YouTube or in video games, particularly if their temperament makes it harder for them to control anger.
How age and skills affect children’s 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 you help them learn better ways of resolving conflict.
Children aged 3-4 years are:
- starting to cooperate, share and take turns, all of which will eventually lead to fewer fights
- still learning about managing their emotions – so, for example, they can become very frustrated if someone else has something they want
- likely to need support, reminders and positive feedback
- might still express frustration and impatience in physical ways like pushing.
Children aged 5-7 years are:
- improving 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, particularly if they’re upset or excited.
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.