Responding playfully to kids’ aggressive urges with faux fighting

Can you sometimes see your child’s aggression coming, but just don’t really know how to respond to stop it?

Deep breathing might help to calm a child, but it can be pretty hard to encourage them to do it once a fight-or-flight response has been triggered!

And resorting to yelling, threatening “consequences”, or “time out” is only likely to fuel our child’s stress response!

(It’s also not great for our relationship with our kids, or for their emotional well-being.)

Well, I’ve got another alternative!

➡️ Stop (what you’re doing), drop (your agenda) and PLAY!

In these kinds of situations, fun, physical play can help …

💥 Kids – because it offers a way to channel their “fight energy”, leaving them feeling calm and connected.

💥 Parents – because it arms us with a gentle, loving strategy that can really work in this tricky scenario!

It may seem counter-intuitive, we don’t want to be modelling aggression, right? But the way we do this makes it clear that this is play, and not real fighting.

What I’m suggesting is that you:

💥 Accept your child’s feelings and urge to fight, reminding yourself that their body may already be teaming with adrenaline.

💥 Approach your child playfully, giving them a strong message that they are safe, loved and accepted.

💥 Offer a non-contact fighting game that will help them to get the fight energy out of their body.

For this game, I’m suggesting that you get in with play even BEFORE your child has started to hit or kick.

At this point, you’ll feel more relaxed and able to play compared to when they’ve already landed a hit/kick.

And they’ll probably be more amenable to this kind of non-contact fighting too!

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➡️ When you notice the verbal or non-verbal signs that tell you that your child is feeling like hitting or kicking, try saying:

“You feel like fighting? Okay, I’ll fight you!”

Then playfully take up a “karate” stance in front of them, making a “serious” fighting face and silly fighting moves.

There’s lots of power reversal involved this. You want to look like you’re taking yourself seriously as a fighter, but instead act like a bumbling fool.

Things you could try are:

💥 “Fighting” really pathetically, hitting and kicking way off the mark.

💥 Acting really goofy, perhaps tripping over your own feet.

💥 Looking a bit ridiculous by making lots of silly faces.

💥 Making comedic “martial arts-style” noises, like “Hi-yah!”.

Alternatively, you might want to be a bumbling boxer, jumping around all over the place with fists held up in front of you, doing some fancy footwork, and saying playfully, “Come on! I’ll take you on!”.

If you can make your child smile, then laugh, you will be well on your way to turning the situation around, from aggression to connection.

And hopefully your child will join you in making air hits and kicks to get the fight energy out of his system.

➡️ If your child still seems to want to really hit or kick you, try something else silly that gives you a bit more distance and protection.

For example, grab one of those big flexible plastic tubs or a washing basket (or a pillow), put it over your head like a helmet and run away in a “cowardly” way.

No doubt your child will chase after you, and, if you want, you can hold the tub/basket out like a shield for your child to safely hit/kick.

😊 After a short bit of play fighting, it’s quite typical for our child’s “fight energy” to have seemingly evaporated.

😊 The playfulness that we have offered engages the part of our child’s brain that signals safety and helps to calm them.

😊 It’s an anti-dote to the fight-or-flight they’re experiencing, and it is amazing how quickly it can take the heat out of a situation.

➡️ If you don’t feel the faux fighting is “working” in the sense that your child continues trying to hurt you, or they want to play fight longer than you are willing to, you can always set a “empathic limit” with them.

You can let them know warmly and gently that you can see that they want to keep “fighting” (empathy), but that that you don’t want to play fighting anymore (limit).

You could then offer an alternative activity that you could enjoy together, and see if they take you up on it, or if they have another suggestion that is acceptable to you.

➡️ And with the boost of connection and emotional safety they’ve experienced, it’s quite possible that tears might come, either after the play or an empathic limit, and this can actually be helpful.

If we stay close, listening and offering a few words of empathy (“I’m here, I’m listening, I see how upset you are”), this can actually give kids a way of releasing these more vulnerable feelings.

Kids will often feel more relaxed and content after a good supported cry.

If you have a go with this, 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 feel like fighting, how responding playfully can help, and why it can be so triggering for parents, you might like to read this post: Kids’ aggression, responding playfully, and the challenge for parents

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