We spoke to Nyack-based psychologist Steven Lee, Ph.D., about the benefits of children participating in roughhouse play, as well as how to handle roughhouse play between girls and boys and how to handle overly aggressive roughhouse play.
How should I handle it when my boys, who like a little roughhouse play—which I think is fine—are interacting with their female cousins of the same age…whose parents do not believe such physical play is acceptable?
I would like to begin by saying that I consider roughhousing as an activity separate and apart from considerations of gender and that’s not about being politically correct. It’s really more related to individual limits and boundaries. And I think that this topic is often written about with respect to boys because they may be more likely to engage in roughhousing, but I think there are a lot of differences within genders, so it’s really a function of looking at limits in activities for individuals.
If there’s a situation where there’s any kind of issue between two individuals, I hope parents begin by seeing if the children are able to work it out themselves. I like to think in terms of what I would call front-loading, which is negotiating with your children prior to something occurring—bringing up this topic not just in the heat of the moment.
If you speak to your children ahead of time, you can have your boys ask for an invitation to engage in that sort of play. And there should also be some kind of signal for when play becomes too rough. That’s something you can encourage in your own children if someone becomes too rough with them. When those things aren’t working, parental intervention is going to be necessary and should be done in a very non-punitive way—just point out that maybe things are getting a little bit rough. If you feel that the rough play is crossing a line, then you might speak to both children.
As you are in the authoritarian role, kids are more likely to be compliant but not actually participate in the process of becoming better decision-makers themselves. When you move into the authoritative role, you’re really inviting children to be part of the process of figuring out whether the rough play has gone too far and asking them how they’re feeling. Then, maybe have a little session about the importance of having a stop signal.
Roughhousing is a way of ramping up the physical level of activity but within the domains of safety, security, limits, and boundaries. To have that kind of stimulation that’s healthy and positive—where the child feels safe and secure and there are limits—I think it’s healthy on an emotional level as well as a physical level because when safety and security are honored or respected, your child picks up on that.
How should I handle if I don't like the way a child is roughhousing with my child, either on a play date or on the playground?
In a situation where there’s no other parent, again remember the whole concept of front-loading where your child has language and signals for this kind of thing, you’re talking about helping your child learn to be more assertive and stand up for himself in certain situations.
The four domains I think roughhousing touches on are safety, security, limits, and boundaries, and sometimes boundaries get crossed. In order for your child to be assertive in dealing with the crossed boundary, you really want to deal with roughhousing proactively rather than reactively—proactively is when you’re trying to work on being assertive before he gets into this sort of situation and reactively is when you’re dealing with the situation as it’s happening. But you’re really going to deal with it both ways. Sometime it has to be reactive.
In a situation where there’s a child and his parents aren’t around and your child is not really engaging in the signal or has failed to get this other child to pay attention to him and he’s just being over-ridden, I think you need to help your child in that moment and try to turn it into a teaching moment rather than a punitive moment by trying to remain in the authoritative parenting role.
But in this instance, I think you would have to intervene and see if you could get the children to correct the situation, not necessarily make the roughhousing stop, but get the children to continue in a way where each of them has the right to say an agreed upon word that means to stop and move onto something else.
—Steven Lee, Ph.D., a Nyack-based psychologist who works with couples, adults, children, adolescents, and families to help with behavioral changes and emotional well-being; Dr. Lee is a former school psychologist.
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