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Aggressive Play – when play isn’t fun anymore

Most children play aggressively, at some time or another. On the whole, this is a normal part of development and it passes quickly. This can range from bashing cars or play characters together in a ‘fight’, lashing out at another child, particularly when there has been a disagreement, to real fighting between two children. It is important to recognise the difference between pretending to be aggressive such as play fighting (please see our previous blog) and play that has become truly aggressive.

All children are different – how they react to strong emotions can vary enormously. Children who have difficulty managing their emotions and frustrations, tend to act out their feelings more freely and sometimes this is seen in their play. When the fun and laughter stops and play becomes angry, spiteful, menacing and even controlling, then it is time to move the play on.

As a child matures and develops, they learn how to express strong feelings such as anger and aggression in acceptable ways by learning from their parents and those around them. This takes time and patience. Children learn that they are separate and independent individuals and want to assert themselves. However, they can have limited self- control and patience, so waiting, sharing and turn taking can take a while to master.

Tips to help manage aggressive play:

  1. Be aware of early signs of anger and aggression in your child. Some children will clench their fists, others change the pitch of their voice or even become very quiet. Knowing how your child reacts to anger and frustration means you can step in before the play becomes too aggressive.
  2. Be aware of certain situations, games or even particular people that often trigger aggression in your child. Try to manage these times so that you can move play on before it becomes aggressive and have rules around play.
  3. If you do need to step in, remain calm. Easy to say, but the calmer you are, the quicker children calm down. This can be difficult when emotions are running high, but will diffuse a situation, rather than escalate it.
  4. Children need to recognise when play isn’t fun anymore. By talking about feelings children start to see when others aren’t enjoying themselves. For example, saying “Jake, Ted looks upset” gives Jake the chance to change his play without you always having to end the game.
  5. Try distraction or re-direction. Distraction diverts your child’s attention away from what they are doing and re-direction offers an acceptable alternative. For example, to distract a child from shouting aggressively, ignore the behaviour and say “Quick – let’s go and play football in the garden”. To re-direct the same behaviour, say in a whisper, with your finger on your lips, “Use your soft voice”.
  6. Children need to understand that angry feelings are Ok and learn how to show them in an acceptable way. Acknowledge when your child is angry and let them express it safely. This can include, running around, jumping up and down or hitting a pillow perhaps. Sometimes joining in with your child allows it to become fun and silly – meaning the aggression is completely forgotten.
  7. Allow calm down time, children find it very hard to switch from one emotion to another quickly, so give them time. Calm down time should not be a punishment. Sometimes children will want you to be close as they can feel overwhelmed by strong emotions and you will be a safe person to calm down with.

Playing aggressively with toys

Children can also play with their toys aggressively. If this becomes increasingly aggressive and destructive then it can help to join in with your child and move it on from aggressive play to a more social, constructive and varied play. This allows acceptance of your child’s angry feelings and enables parents to interact at their child’s level. Different emotions can be reflected in shared play. Children can be encouraged and shown how to play differently, learning empathy and understanding for others feelings. New props can be introduced, for example, instead of two cars constantly being crashed together, play animals and people can be used for the cars to move around and interact with. Here is an example of how it might go:

Tyler is 4 and often plays aggressively with his toys, hitting them together and making them ‘kill’ each other. Mum and Tyler are sitting on the floor together and have a dinosaur each. Tyler crashes his dinosaur into his mum’s.

Tyler (roaring): “My dinosaur’s going to kill your dinosaur!”

Mum (laughing): “Oh no – arghhhh! He’s really angry”

Tyler: “He’s very angry”

Mum: “Shall my one fight back?”

Tyler: “Yes”

They play with the dinosaurs fighting each other and growling for a short time.

Mum: In a softer dinosaur voice “I feel scared now, I’m going to run away”

Tyler “Run away, run away! I will chase you!”

Mum and Tyler play chase with the dinosaurs. Tyler catches Mum’s dinosaur and hits it.

Mum: “Ouch! Oh no, my dinosaurs hurt his head”

Tyler continues to roar and attack Mum’s dinosaur.

Mum (pulling a sad face) “Oh no, what can we do to make him better?”

Tyler: “Give him a plaster!”

Mum: “Great idea! How about we use this?”

Mum gives Tyler a piece of sticky tape and he sticks it on the dinosaur’s head.

Mum: “That’s very kind, thank you. He feels better now”

Tyler: “I want a plaster for my dinosaur!”

Mum: “Ok Dr Tyler”

The above is just an example and of course, it won’t always go like that, but by meeting a child in their play and allowing feelings to be discussed, enables play to be carefully extended beyond the aggression.

Sometimes aggressive play and behaviour becomes prolonged and escalates. If you are concerned that your child’s behaviour is too aggressive and destructive, it may be advisable to seek further advice.

Sarah and Michelle run a company called Purple Parenting, offering positive behaviour support through individual work, groupwork and workshops. Email purpleparenting@gmail.com to arrange your free telephone consultation to help with aggression, play fighting, sleep, tantrums, fussy eating, anger, anxiety and more.