When is Rough Play too Aggressive?


I am back from holidays and had a wonderful time. I was pleased that in the middle of the traveling I was able to take a “work break” and do a workshop for Borden Ladner Gervais in Ottawa. It is always great to be able to take advantage of being in another city and work with a wonderful client there.

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I received a question from a parent about aggressive play. I know this is an issue for many parents so that’s the topic for this week.

When is Rough Play Too Aggressive?


I have an almost 6 year old who is in kindergarten. The other day on the playground after school I saw him slide his hand from one side of his friend’s neck to the other in a motion that was like slicing his neck. I naively thought that we would not have to deal with this kind of violence, but clearly it’s out there in a 5-year old’s world. I’m disturbed and unsure about what to do. Where do you draw the line with boys – when does normal rough boy play become unacceptable violence? No one was getting hurt physically, but I find the behaviour disturbing. Why is it that every “L” shaped thing become an imaginary gun and why do they always have pretend weapons to kill each other?


There are many theories about why boys engage in aggressive play, particularly with toy weapons. There are also conflicting beliefs as to whether parents should permit their kids to engage in such play.

Clearly, children learn their behavior from many sources including the other kids in the playground. So they engage in this play simply because they see it from their playmates. There is also some argument that says that aggressive play comes from either frustration or anger and is a healthy way for children to work through these feelings.

Those who argue in favour of play with weapons, also say that young children who are coping with imaginary fears may find that these toys help them feel safe. And there is the argument that it’s going to happen anyway so why fight it.

I am one of those who argue against allowing kids to play with guns or other weapons. There are many healthier ways to teach kids to handle frustration and anger. If they learn to use weapons in play, how are they developing socially safe and acceptable ways of coping as they mature?

That being said, what can you do? As long as no one in the family is hitting or in any way physically hurting your son, you can make a rule that says, in our home hurting another person is never okay. When other children come over to play and bring toy guns, for example, you can explain that all guns get left at the door and they can claim them when they leave.

Your son will have other opportunities to play with toy weapons or engage in aggressive play in other homes where the rules are different. In our family, we told the kids they could follow the house rules when they were visiting other children but they were never ever to point a weapon at us. We would not be amused.

In this way, we acknowledged the inevitability of aggressive play but made our beliefs and values crystal clear on the topic. Much as all the people and activities in their lives influence children, we are their primary influence and source of information. When we are clear about our beliefs and follow it up with our non-violent behavior, they learn that there are positive ways to handle anger, fear and frustration.

Don’t present your feelings in an arbitrary way or criticize their friends. Instead simply tell him that you are disturbed when you see him being violent toward other kids because real guns or fighting can hurt people.

If he’s using aggressive play to deal with fears, help him deal with his fears. For example, if he’s afraid of the dark, give him a night-light. If monsters are the problem, search his room before he goes to bed. Some parents have found putting a sign over the door, which says Monster Exit helps.

Five-year-olds want to feel powerful, competent and in control of their lives. They are aware of the all the things they can’t do and control and find the idea that they simply have to wait until they get bigger annoying. We can help them to feel competent by giving them real work experiences such as carpentry, cooking or gardening. They will work off energy doing real things like helping build the new fence, preparing dinner or growing the carrots that will become part of dinner.

He will still be aggressive with other kids from time to time. But he will know that it’s not the best solution and as he matures will move from aggression to positive competencies.


Posted in News, School-Age | 3 Comments

3 Responses to When is Rough Play too Aggressive?

  1. yvonne campbell says:

    Very good suggestion for parents to follow.
    Parent must model the behavour that they want their children to emulate, also children must be instructed and informed of acceptible and unacceptible behaviors.
    Clear family values are must be practice at home

  2. Carol says:

    I have a three years old boy who is going to the kindergarten. He likes to throw sand to other kids. Sometimes he pushes other kids too. We have been telling him a lot of time not to be so rough to other kids, but with poor effect. He is too young to tell me why is he doing that. What can we do to stop these?

    • Kathy Lynn says:


      You need to first explain that he’s not to be so rough and let him know that he has a choice. He can play nicely or he must be on his own. Then if he is rough you tell him he has made the choice to stay away from the other kids and then you take him off on his own. Do not however leave him alone.
      Then you can try to figure out what is happening for him. At three he is very young to be in kindergarten so maybe he needs to wait until he’s older and be in a situation with other three-year-olds.
      Good luck

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