Kids fighting: the basics
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 like it.
And for siblings, fights can happen when they compete with each other for their parents’ attention or approval. 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 children to practise the social skills they’ll need as adults. 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 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
Children are born with their own temperaments – the way they react to the world and behave. For example, they 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 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:
- calmly discussing compromises when you disagree with someone
- 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 a lot of violence on TV, at the movies and in video games, particularly if their temperament makes it harder for them to control anger.
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 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 feelings – so for example, they can become very frustrated if something they want is taken away
- likely to need support, reminders and positive feedback
- might still express frustration in physical ways like fighting.
Children aged 5-7 years are:
- continuing to improve 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.