Family, Kids & Relationships

How to know the difference between roughhousing and real fighting — and when to step in

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When kids wrestle, sword-fight, chase, or tickle each other, it can be hard to know whether they’re crossing the line into harmful behavior. Experts say that rough-and-tumble play, or “play fighting,” can be a great thing, so parents definitely don’t need to shut it down every time they notice kids getting physical.

Roughhousing is a common behavior among kids from toddlerhood to adolescence, and while it may make some parents nervous that their kids will grow up to be too disruptive or aggressive, it can actually have the opposite effect. Many boys and girls may need this form of play for healthy development.

Child development experts agree that rough-and-tumble play has many benefits for kids, including:

  • Exercise, improving strength, and practicing fast-paced physical skills
  • Using imaginative role play as a healthy means to explore tricky concepts such as power and justice, and process what’s happening in the world around them
  • Developing self-regulation skills and impulse control by practicing the start and stop of physical behavior
  • Building other important social skills such as competition, consent, listening, turn-taking, group problem-solving, and interpreting body language
  • Physical touch promotes stronger emotional bonds between friends, siblings, or parent and child — which improves brain development and bolsters mental health
  • Experimenting with safe boundaries teaches kids how and when to trust each other

The difference between safe and unsafe physical play

The National Association for the Education of Young Children now recognizes play fighting as an acceptable behavior in early education settings, since it usually doesn’t lead to real harm. In fact, most elementary-aged kids can accurately tell the difference between play fighting and real fighting.

But play fighting can still look surprisingly aggressive and risky to adults (especially those who haven’t engaged in it much themselves), so it’s tricky to know the difference. Adults can monitor the behavior to look for red flags that the play is crossing into unsafe territory.

Some of the signs of safe rough-and-tumble play include:

  • Participants on all “sides” are laughing, smiling, and/or using their imaginations
  • Other kids want to join in the fun and get a turn
  • Children are playing fairly, letting others (including those who are smaller) have a turn to “dominate”
  • Kids are stopping short of actually inflicting (physical or emotional) harm — i.e. kids avoid hitting each other’s faces and instead make a noise or gesture to represent the imaginary harm they’d inflict if they did
  • All of the kids still want to play with each other after the “rough” portion of play is over

Here are some of the warning signs of actual fighting or overly aggressive behavior:

  • Participants (or onlookers) are staring, frowning, crying, or getting red in the face
  • One child is dominating, not allowing others to have a fair chance
  • Requests to stop, pause, take a break, change roles, or update the rules are being ignored
  • Power appears to be severely imbalanced along age/size/strength, gender/sexuality, or racial lines
  • The two (and it is usually only two in a real fight) kids don’t want to spend time with each other after the aggression

How to encourage safe roughhousing

Rather than trying to avoid horseplay, parents can actually give kids a time and place to get out some of their energy and explore the limits of their bodies and emotions. Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Lots of outdoor time can help: You can keep an eye on kids as they roll on grassy hills, create games jumping from rock to rock, or try to give each other piggy-back rides in the yard. It’s much less stressful than trying to protect your mother-in-law’s decorative vases in the living room.
  • Establish a parent-and-child “tickle time” or “wrestling ring” where you set ground rules, such as not touching each other’s faces and stopping when one participant says “stop” or “mercy.” This approach actively models consent and safe play, and also provides an opportunity for bonding.
  • Encourage kids to agree on a code word and/or safe zone before starting a rough game so that if one person needs a break or to change activities, the transition will be smoother.
  • Teach kids to pause in order to let their brains have time to make safe choices. There can even be a silly word that you agree on as a family to remind each other to take a pause.
  • Model consent in everyday situations — for example, ask permission (and wait for an answer) before giving hugs, tickling, or taking a toy.
  • Try setting a timer and giving kids a certain amount of time to have an uninterrupted ninja battle, etc. When the timer goes off, use that pause to check in with kids, remind them of safety rules, and make sure all participants want to continue.
  • Teach kids to check in with each other to see if there’s a real injury — and if so, to be involved in helping the injured sibling/friend.
  • Offer praise when kids manage to get through a tickle or wrestling session while respecting each other: “That looked like fun. I especially love how you took a pause when your brother needed one!”
  • If you’re worried about belongings getting destroyed or the house getting too messy, communicate that calmly. For example: “Could you please either move this game to a different room, or find a way to be more gentle to the furniture?” Or: “Be sure to save some of that energy to put everything away when you’re done, okay?”
  • Discuss family rules for safety in public places. For example, help kids understand why they need to keep their hands to themselves in the classroom, and why they can’t sword-fight at a crowded playground.
  • Help kids to understand racial and gender dynamics, as well as differences in age, size, strength, physical ability, etc. For example: “Your friend might get in more trouble than you playing that game here, so maybe that’s one to save for another time.” Or: “Your little sister doesn’t balance the same way you do, so you’ll need to put her down more slowly.”
  • If any pretend weapons are involved, make sure kids know there are some special rules to follow. See these tips for safer toy gun play.

When to step in to mediate rough play

Sometimes kids do get too rough or aggressive, and one or more of the kids involved may not be gaining anything positive from the dynamic — or you sense too much danger to someone’s health or personal property. But when kids fight or begin to cross the line, adults don’t necessarily need to step in and fix everything. Instead, think of your role as that of a mediator.

Here are some examples of when you might need to stop rough play, and how to approach it:

  • When there’s an unresolved violation of consent and one kid is failing to read the other’s signs of distress, children may need a reminder of how to play safely. Pause the game to see if anyone is hurt, explain what you observed, and ask both parties how they can solve the problem together. If they are not ready to play safely or discuss calmly, ask them to take a break from each other until they are.
  • If the type of play is causing too much distress or disruption to onlookers (for example, at the park or a family party), encourage kids to take a break and try the game another time, another way, or in a different area. Explain that even if they thought they were being safe, we don’t want others around us to feel unsafe.
  • If your child is frequently exhibiting antisocial rather than prosocial behavior, don’t hesitate to seek help from a behavioral therapist. And until then, try to avoid or alter the scenario(s) that seem to trigger such behavior.

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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.