When wanting to fight is code for “I need connection!”

My son has been pretty keen on “fighting” with my husband, Alex, lately. This could be any one or combination of non-contact karate-style fighting, wrestling or pillow fighting, throwing or bashing. One of the first things you’ll hear come out of my son’s mouth when my husband comes home from work is, “Fight with me! Fight with me!”. After a long day of work and commuting, Alex isn’t always up for it. In fact, often fighting is the last thing he feels like doing! But I think he sees that when he is able to muster the energy and enthusiasm, it usually pays off in my son feeling more calm, connected and cooperative afterwards.

The other morning as Alex was preparing to leave for work, my son was at it again, saying “Fight with me! Fight with me!”, and this time he gave my husband a couple of real hits. Alex seemed a bit tense, and started down the track of, “I can’t let you hit me …”, blocking my son’s hands. But it didn’t appear to have any impact on my son, who was standing in front of us looking pretty tense himself! It seemed like the limit wasn’t addressing my son’s underlying feelings or needs and we were at a stalemate. I was sitting next to my husband feeling quite relaxed, so I went in warmly with some play, pretending to chop my son’s arms with my hands.

Alex changed tack in a split second, and joined us in the play fighting. The atmosphere shifted immediately to one of fun and connection. All of a sudden, my son brandished the deadly “Wuxi Finger Hold” (inspired by the Kung Fu Panda movie), and Alex went straight into a bit of power reversal play with him, yelling, “Oh no!!! Not the Finger Hold!!!”. My son laughed mischievously, held his pinky aloft and then laid the Finger Hold on my husband, who dramatically keeled over on the couch, “dead”! This kind of play gives kids the opportunity to have the upper hand for a change, and my son loved it and laughed with glee! He then “respawned” my husband (a term we have adopted from Minecraft), giving him a new life so they could fight again.

They played this over a couple of times, and during one of my husband’s “deaths”, my son whispered to me with a cheeky grin, “Alex is going to miss his bus!”. We all laughed, and Alex and I were touched by what we saw as my son’s expression of a wish that my husband could stay with us, rather than going off to work. The game continued for a while, before Alex went off to finish getting ready for work. When Alex was just about to leave, my son ran over to him and gave him a final “Finger Hold”, in response to which my husband dutifully “died”. My son waited a moment and then happily yelled, “Respawn! Bye Alex!”, and peacefully ran off to play.

It looked to me like my son was working on his feelings around my husband going off to work, perhaps sadness, frustration and powerlessness. Rather than saying, “I feel sad that you’re going to be gone all day. I’m going to miss you. I don’t want you to go. And I’m frustrated that I can’t do anything about it”, my son initiated this (mostly) playful fight. After connecting with Alex through play and shedding some discomfort through laughter, my son seemed to feel more relaxed and able to let my husband go. My son’s brief pause before the final respawn seemed to be his taking a tiny bit of power in the situation, and then finally giving my husband permission to leave. In my husband’s words, “He was willing to choose me going to work”.

How would it be for you to accept a child’s aggressive urges as an invitation for a playful fight? Perhaps with a little bit of power reversal, by taking the role of the weaker, less competent opponent? I wonder what benefits you might see?

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