Pillow games for responding playfully to our child’s aggression

I love pillows as props for responding playfully when my child feels like hitting or kicking!

When kids are hitting or kicking, they are usually in a defensive state of fight-or-flight, which means they have lots of adrenaline pumping through their body, giving their muscles a surge of energy.

Pillows offer the possibility of so many fun games that give kids the opportunity to expend the survival instinct energy, as well as offering valuable connection and the likelihood of laughter to offload stress.

In order to do this kind of play effectively, we need to feel safe enough that we can be operating from the part of our nervous system (the “social engagement system”) that communicates love, acceptance and safety back to our child.

Even though our child may be a lot smaller and weaker than us, we can still sometimes be triggered into fight-or-flight when they lash out at us. Pillows can provide a physical barrier, allowing us to be with our children’s feelings without fear of being hurt.

(And we might find that even with the pillows we don’t feel safe enough, in which case, these games aren’t the best strategy in that moment.)

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Some of my favourite basic pillow games when my son wants to hit or kick are:

💜 Holding a pillow out in front of my body and inviting my child to hit or kick it. It’s good to have a pillow that’s big enough to offer good “coverage” and shock absorbing capacity! I find this can be the best place to start when my son starts lashing out, because it’s as simple as grabbing a pillow, and it’s clear what the game is.

💜 Throwing pillows towards my child for him to hit or kick away. This is a great one because it gives you a bit more distance from your child, less likelihood of them landing a hit or kick! I like to vary the intensity, so throwing some bigger pillows that require more effort, and other smaller ones so he can feel like a superhero blasting them away!

💜 Both of us throwing pillows at each other, and dodging and blocking them the best we can! This is a really fast moving, dynamic game, that gets us both laughing and our of hearts pumping!

💜 Both of us holding pillow and hitting them together (I personally prefer not to have the pillows hitting my body directly during pillow fights!). Or using my pillow to block his pillow if he is trying to hit my body! I love that this one can help me to release some stress from my body too!

💜 If it feels right, I can go into some power reversal play, when he bashes me with the pillow, I can fall over dramatically, acting shocked at how powerful he is! Power reversal games usually give kids a lot of laughs, helping them to release feelings of mild fear and powerlessness, and they often want to play them over and over again!

💜 Pretending that the pillows are “love bombs” and doing big lobs in my child’s direction (“Love bomb coming your way! Incoming!!!!”). This one also inevitably elicits a lot of laughter from him, and I feel like it fills his emotional cup with lots of love.

In these games, I am trying my best not to overpower my child, which will feel scary for him, increasing his fight-or-flight activation.

I’m offering him the opportunity to expend the “fight energy” that he has in his body, as a result of the adrenaline, in a safe, non-harmful way.

I’m offering him a little bit of resistance, so he can get a sense of his own strength and power (safety).

I’m doing it with a warm and loving attitude, and genuinely having fun!

I can offer some understanding, empathy and acceptance of how he is feeling, “Wow! You really feel like hitting!”, trying to match the intensity of my words, with the intensity of his feelings.

I might incorporate some power reversal play, acting weaker than I actually am, and letting him feel like the more powerful one, bringing lots of stress-releasing and endorphin-increasing laughs.

This allows him to feel safe and connected, which helps him to feel calmer and start acting in a more prosocial manner again.

If you think you’re child doesn’t understand yet, or you feel it’s important to repeat the message, you can preface the play with a loving limit on hitting/kicking your person, and the alternative you’re offering:

“I can’t let you hit/kick me, but you can hit/kick these pillows!”.

And, of course, if there are any ‘No’s or ‘Stop’s, or non-verbal indications that it’s too much for my child (e.g. shrieking, squealing), then I pause, and only continue if I get the ‘go ahead’ from my son.

For these games to work, it’s vital that our child feels safe.

These pillow games sometimes transform into a chase-and-can’t-catch power reversal game, where my son runs away and I run after him, but just can’t catch him, until I finally do and give him a big cuddle.

Running is great, because it’s further pumping those large muscles that experience a surge of energy when we’re in fight-or-flight. Physical activity like this also has a similar impact to laughter in terms of reducing stress hormones and increasing endorphins.

Or we might go in the direction of some squashing games, either piling the pillows on top of my son, or using one pillow and my own body weight to squash him, in a game we affectionately call, “Squashy!”!

These ones offer calming deep pressure touch, which increases activity in the “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic division, and decreases activity in the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic division, of the autonomic nervous system.

So next time your child starts hitting or kicking, grab a pillow and see if you can transform the aggression into some beautiful fun and calming connection.

I’d love to hear how it goes!

And if you’d like to understand more about what is going on in kids’ nervous systems when they hit or kick, how responding playfully can help, and why it can be so challenging for parents, you might like to read my previous post “Kids’ Aggression, Responding Playfully, and the Challenge for Parents”.

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