Before I complete the “4 R’s” I promised after the “Ten Ideas for Helping Children Behave” posting, I wanted to offer some brief thoughts about roughhousing. Roughhousing is a valuable tool for helping children manage aggression. All children learn to manage their aggression first in the context of their caregiving relationships. Children who have had fortunate lives need help from their caregivers with this important developmental task, and children who have experienced maltreatment or abuse need even more help from their caregivers with this task.
I often recommend roughhousing, or horseplay, to caregivers who come with concerns about their young children, especially little boys who get into trouble with aggressive behavior. This family activity, obviously limited to young children – usually between about 3 and 8-years old – is a powerful learning experience for children, as well as an enjoyable time for the family.
It involves a caregiver, usually a man, wrestling with the child in a playful way. The wrestling gives the child a chance to experience and express his physical aggression safely in the context of a trusting caregiving relationship. In roughhousing, the child can try out the full extent of his physical strength in competition with a human “adversary” (this is different from trying it out in relation to an inanimate object) without getting hurt and without hurting the other. It is the caregiver’s job to maintain the boundaries and keep both the child and himself safe. Roughhousing usually works best one on one. If there is more than one child interested in rough housing, there is a great opportunity to practice respecting boundaries in the form of taking turns.
The first step in setting up a roughhousing event is to establish the house rules with respect to rough housing. These will always include: (1) Roughhousing always stops when one player calls out “No!” or “Stop!”; (2) There is no touching the face, head, or private parts; (3) Roughhousing has a declared beginning and end, and the time limits are established by the caregiver (unless the child declines the initial invitation to rough house or wishes to stop early, in which case the child’s wishes are respected); and (4) The second child who wishes to play must wait his or her turn. There can be other rules, such as no jumping on the caregiver’s back or no roughhousing in a particular part of the house, depending on the particular family situation.
It is important to note that if the child has a history of abuse or has extreme anxiety about physical contact, roughhousing should not be tried without professional consultation, and even then not without the utmost care and attention to the child’s cues.
Here are some of the valuable lessons a child can learn from rough housing:
- Physical aggression can be expressed in a relationship without fear of destruction.
- Aggression can be constructive and enjoyable if well intentioned, in control, and responsive the other’s cues.
- Boundaries must be respected.
- Turn taking is an essential part of human relationships.