Help! I’m Worried About My Child’s Aggressive Play

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

My 5-year-old is a generally happy and sweet kid, but I have been noticing lately that her play can get pretty violent. She can be aggressive sometimes and say things like, “Let’s pretend to punch each other.” When we play together, she wants there to be “good guys” and “bad guys” and have them fight—and sometimes kill—each other. She builds guns and other weapons with Legos and uses them to have fights with her toys, gleefully informing me when one or another of her toys “dies.”

Her dad and I don’t let her watch violent shows, so I don’t know where she is getting this—from other kids at school or from watching shows at her grandparents’ house, maybe? I’m worried whatever exposure she’s getting to weapons and violence is going to be harmful. I’ve tried to talk with her about it, but I’m not sure I’m using the right words. It’s really difficult for me to hear her play-act violence without saying anything, but I don’t want her to think she’s being “bad,” because I know she isn’t. How can I talk to her about this? —Puzzled Parent

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Dear Puzzled Parent,

As a therapist, I want to let you know that this experience is common, and, actually, developmentally appropriate. As a parent, however, I remember being concerned myself when my happy (sheltered) kid started playing in this way. It may be that your daughter is hearing or watching kids on the playground, or perhaps has seen shows, but often it is hard to pinpoint a specific source of inspiration. Many kids, at some point, explore themes of aggression, violence, and death through their play.

I think in all of this it can be helpful to remember the true function of play. Children play to explore their world, to experience in fantasy things they might not experience in real life, and to try things out safely. It is not unusual for kids, particularly rule-following kids, to embrace the role of “bad guy” in their play. For young children who are not often in control of their world, what greater relief and excitement is there than to play-act as the ultimate rule-breakers? Also, children are naturally curious about life and death and how everything works. Play-acting the death of their toys is one way they process safely any fears or concerns they might have or try to make a big concept feel controllable.

The glee you describe in your little girl may simply be a reflection of the joy of being in complete control of her universe. She is all-powerful. How fun is that? As long as these impulses are expressed through play and not manifesting in aggressive, hurtful behavior beyond playtime, there is likely little to be concerned about.

There’s also a somewhat innate destructive urge that can be seen in any toddler on a beach relishing their demolition of a sand castle. The glee you describe in your little girl may simply be a reflection of the joy of being in complete control of her universe. She is all-powerful. How fun is that? As long as these impulses are expressed through play and not manifesting in aggressive, hurtful behavior beyond playtime, there is likely little to be concerned about.

You are right not to want her to think she is being “bad” by engaging in this play. One helpful approach is to express curiosity. For example, you might ask her why she wants to pretend to “punch each other.” You can engage in some complicated, choreographed, slow-motion “fights” that could actually be fun and enjoyable for both of you, while talking with her about why you would never actually harm each other in real life. You can also ask her what happens to a toy when it “dies” and explore her understanding of what that means. Asking her to tell you what it means to be a “bad guy” or a “good guy” can give you some insight into her developing sense of morality—and even if she chooses to be the “bad guy” in play, that doesn’t mean she actually embraces the dark side.

It is natural as a parent to worry about all that our children will be exposed to when they are not in our care, and yet, as they get older, more and more of their time will be spent beyond the walls of our homes. We can’t prevent them from hearing and seeing things we might not like. What we can do is equip them to handle their experiences. Ongoing conversations about what we believe is important, how we believe we should treat people, and what impact our words and actions have on others around us can help our children navigate the various messages they receive.

If your child remains generally happy, sweet, loving, and able to express empathy, it is likely she is using this play in healthy, developmentally appropriate ways. It is also likely a phase that will pass. If, however, you see some concerning behaviors going beyond the scope of play, you may want to consult with a child therapist to address those concerns. Your child’s teacher can also be a great source of information about how your daughter’s behavior at school compares with what you see at home, as well putting it in context with the other 5-year-olds in her school.

Best of luck,

Erika

Erika Myers
Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
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  • Dakota

    Dakota

    December 23rd, 2016 at 8:44 AM

    If it is just play then I all out agree- let her be a kid and act out things as long as it is not hurting her or anyone else. I guess that there would be a time though when you might have to intervene if you found that another child is getting hurt as a result of the violent play.

  • Lennox

    Lennox

    December 24th, 2016 at 4:03 PM

    If it is simply play then I wouldn’t think that there would be any reason to be alarmed. I know that it can make some parents uncomfortable but I think that a lot of it has to do with the children testing their boundaries and how far they can go until it becomes something more than just play. I would keep an eye on it,make sure that it doesn’t get any more serious than that and take it from there.

  • Kymm

    Kymm

    December 26th, 2016 at 1:47 PM

    worry more if they always let other kids push them around

  • Liesl

    Liesl

    December 27th, 2016 at 11:29 AM

    My one big concern as a parent would be that he is too rough with other children and that makes them hesitant to engage with him too much. I have seen kids get cut off from their friends like that either when they are being too rough for the other kids to like it or more than likely too rough for the other parents. Those are the things that I think that you have to monitor pretty closely because that could lead to your child very easily being shut out of future friendships/

  • walker

    walker

    December 28th, 2016 at 12:14 PM

    We went through some of the same things with my daughter a few years ago. She was so much rougher than the other little girls in her playgroup and it started to feel like she was being excluded as a result of that. I had a talk with some of the other moms and they agreed that for a while maybe we could take a step back and see if her behavior improved. As she got older I just think that there came a level of maturity that was not there before and that one thing has made a world of difference.
    I know that this is not anything that can be changed overnight though, so a lot of times I think it will just take patience, understanding from others, and waiting it out.

  • Cal

    Cal

    December 29th, 2016 at 8:59 AM

    Don’t worry yet- there is still plenty of time for things to change

  • allen t

    allen t

    December 31st, 2016 at 8:14 AM

    I start to get worried at times when I read things like this that we have stopped letting kids be kids.
    How are we helping them in any way when we have stifled their ability to learn and grow and find out on their own what kind of adult they are supposed to be?
    I understand that there will always be times when intervention is necessary but if they are young and just starting to figure out some of the social rules than I think that it is good to let them figure out some of this on their own.
    It might be hard, but isn’t it a good thing to let your child fail but then to figure out on their own how to overcome that instead of you being the one who is always doing the solving for them?

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