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Responding to Aggressive Play

March 4, 2014

By Stephen J. West

A father talks to his son on the playground.

When I’m planning my two-year-old son’s day, I like to schedule activities where he can play with other children. Whether it’s the playground, the mall, or an arranged play date with another child, playing with other children is not only fun for my son, it also helps him learn how to interact and socialize with other children.

Playing with other children presents plenty of opportunities for my son’s emotional development, too. But the laughter and smiles aren’t the only benefits; when he and the other children stop playing nice also presents an experience to learn from—for him and me alike.

Whether it’s a frustration over sharing a toy or not wanting to play a game, confrontations between children are normal. According to Susan Stiffelman, “When a child is frustrated, there are only two possible outcomes: 1) he accepts that he cannot have or do what he would like, or 2) he becomes aggressive toward others or himself.”

Stiffleman believes that “If a frustrated child is able to safely offload his upset—perhaps even by having a cry—he will find his way toward accepting that he can't have the cookie, the toy, or the undivided attention he seeks. Otherwise, his frustration will turn into aggressive behavior.”

When aggressive behavior does take place between your child and another, it’s important to have strategies in your back pocket for helping your child and the other children involved.

Stay calm and explain the misbehavior. Kids need to be taught what isn’t acceptable, and they will usually listen if you calmly instruct them not to touch, hit, or bite. A parent who causes a scene over a child’s actions can inspire further outbursts that will end the play date quickly—and isn’t really modeling the most respectable social behavior themselves.

Give the children involved an exit plan. Whether that means introducing another game or moving your child to another room to play by themselves, distraction—and sometimes distance—can diffuse tension.

Occasionally, your child’s aggressive play might result in another child getting a bump or bruise. In that case, Amy McCready believes that you make sure the other child is okay, but not force your child to give a meaningless apology. “They’ll learn more long-term,” she says, “if you hold them accountable when they’re calm by helping them make amends to the other child.”

The same advice holds true when you need to confront another parent about the actions of their child. If you can, speak to the parent away from the children, even if it’s after the confrontation has been resolved. And when you do talk with them, be conscious of the tone of your voice and your choice of words. If I want my son to learn how to respect others, the way I act when I confront other adults might be the most important lesson I can give him.



In addition to being a father of an energetic two year old, Stephen J. West is a professor, writer, art enthusiast, and collector of bonsai trees. You can follow him on Twitter, where his opinions are his own. 

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