You want to let your kids rough house. You know now the importance of that (if you missed that article click here). But you are worried about it getting out of hand.
Our job as parents and teachers is to keep our children safe. But it is also to help them learn and grow. And growing involves some growing pains.
How do we balance the needs for safety and challenge when our kids play rough?
Last week I talked about the incredible importance of rough-and-tumble play for kids. This week we address how to tumble with our kids and to set limits when needed to keep it in that optimal risk zone (safe, but challenging and boundary-pushing). We need to balance the need for risk-taking with that for safety in three areas: their body, your body, and the environment. This week will focus on setting limits to keep your kidʼs body safe in rough-and-tumble play.
Recently I was engaged in some intense foam sword fighting with two brothers in my play therapy office. The older brother loved to show off his moves and use his strength. Even though the younger brother looked overwhelmed and would sometimes get hurt, he wanted his brother to go hard on him. He needed it. In order to feel his strength he needed to be pushed to his limit. Itʼs my job to help him feel that inner strength. But it is also my job to keep him safe from harm. So imagine my dilemma when after saying he did not want his brother go easier on him, a piece of the foam sword broke off exposing the plastic underneath and grazed his neck causing a small scrape. Anxiety about if I am creating a safe enough environment for him, worry about what his parents might say, a desire to stop the game all together ran through my system in a millisecond. If I had listened to my own fear I would have stopped the game abruptly leaving him feeling weak and helpless once again. But instead I paused the game, really looked at his face that showed the pain but also strength, and asked if he would like to stop. He took a breath and said no, continuing on with a smile with his brother until they decided to stop on their own. The moral here: set limits from a place of keeping your kids safe from real danger, not from your own fear about if youʼre doing a good job. Your kids will thank you.
Itʼs normal and healthy to want to protect our children. And it is true that play involves risk. But what research has shown is that allowing the natural course of some cuts and bruises and a few tears in play far exceeds the risks of cutting them off from this play (see the article on how stopping rough-and-tumble play can lead to violent tendencies). And even beyond allowing some hurts being okay, itʼs actually healing.
When an adult lightly supervises rough-and-tumble play then they are there to listen to the hurts that open up when there is a cut or your child goes beyond her boundary and scares herself. All the scares or hurts from the day, the week, and even earlier in life can come out through those tears and into the loving heart of the caring adult that listens with patience and attention. This is the Hand in Hand Parenting Tool called Staylistening.
So this week when you duke it out with your little ninja, remember to check in if you are setting a limit to truly keep them safe, or from your own place of worry or overwhelm.
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Karen Wolfe, MFT is a psychotherapist in San Francisco and the East Bay. She is passionate about helping children and families thrive and has particular expertise with children with exceptional learning and sensory styles.