I don’t know how it starts,” says Liana Brown.* “You just blink, and they’re wrestling.”
Brown’s talking about her sons, five-year-old Luke and three-year-old Nick, and their seemingly unquenchable enthusiasm for wrestling, play fighting and roughhousing — those games that involve the two of them rolling around on the floor together, often punching or pulling or holding each other down.
“When both kids are laughing, it’s play fighting,” Brown says. “But it can escalate pretty quickly so it’s hard to draw the line.”
Brown’s not the only parent who finds it hard to distinguish between play and real fighting.
“This is a very common issue with kids this age,” says parent educator Tanya Bartram of Calgary. “It’s a time when kids are testing their physical and social limits and boys, in particular, tend to do it in a very physical way.”
Still, parents often need to get involved, depending on the situation.
Consider the ages. “Especially with three-year-olds, it’s too much to expect them to police themselves and keep from getting carried away,” says Bartram. With these younger children, the play fighting can very quickly deteriorate into a real fight with injuries and tears.
Play wrestling between kids of different ages can be hazardous too. “Luke doesn’t always realize how much stronger he is and that he can easily hurt Nick without meaning to,” says Brown.
In these situations, Bartram suggests finding a distraction to break up the roughhousing. “You can bring out some toy cars and suggest they race them on the floor, or suggest that we all go outside — any activity that will get their attention and prevent things from getting out of hand.”
Burn off energy. “Play fighting is definitely more common when the boys have pent-up energy — if they’ve been cooped up in the car for a long drive, for example, or when they’re excited about something like an upcoming birthday party,” says Brown.
Prevention is the best strategy in this situation, says Bartram. Look for a less aggressive physical activity that can burn off some of that pent-up energy — running, jumping, dancing together.
Find distractions. “If we’re heading toward bedtime, I know I need to intervene, even if it seems to be all in fun, because I know it’s likely to go downhill fast,” comments Brown. This is also the time when a little poke in the ribs or an accidental bump can lead to instant tussling on the floor. Tired preschoolers are more likely to start wrestling, but also more likely to end with an angry meltdown.
“Remember that preschoolers can’t multi-task,” says Bartram. “This is the time for distraction. Bring out the storybook, the snack, the quiet activity. If you can get their attention focused on that, they’ll forget about the roughhousing.”
Keep it short. Preschoolers are just learning the fine art of getting along with each other, Bartram points out. Using words to resolve problems, sharing toys and taking turns are all new skills for this age group, and many find they can’t keep it up for long. If your child’s playdate with his friend has gone from driving trucks side by side to rolling around on the floor while “pretending” to punch each other, it may be time for the visit to end — or at least for you to take charge and organize the play activities.
Pay attention. Although many preschoolers like rough play, parents need to keep an eye — and an ear — on the situation. “I can sometimes hear when the tone of voice changes,” Brown comments. “One will start to sound a bit angry or upset, and then I know it’s time to step in and separate them.”
And don’t worry, says Bartram: “A love of roughhousing at four doesn’t mean your child is destined to grow up to be some kind of thug or hooligan. It’s a very normal stage.”
Liana Brown’s* daughter, Laura, isn’t into play fighting the way her brothers are. “She does enjoy wrestling and roughhousing with her dad, but not the boys or her friends. She definitely doesn’t seek it out the way they do.” That’s typical, says Calgary parent educator Tanya Bartram. “Some girls do like to play fight. But in general, girls are more verbal, and they make connections and work out relationships more through words than physical actions.”
*Names changed by request.