Play Fighting: Benefits, Risks, & Examples Of Rough Play

How To Tell The Difference Between Play Fighting And Just Plain Fighting

January 22, 2021 Updated May 17, 2021

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Kids love to tickle and chase each other. They might even take each other down in an epic wrestling match with little hands and little feet flying everywhere as they twist each other in headlocks and go all WWE in bodychecks. And sure, it can be cute. Funny even! But from a parenting perspective, it’s totally understandable if you’re left wondering if your kids’ aggressive antics are healthy and normal — not to mention safe. You could even be keen to break up the play fighting immediately and have them play “nice” with each other instead. So, what is the deal with this type of play? Is it some form of sibling rivalry? What if it’s between your child and one of their friends? Should you even allow it?

While there is some debate over whether play fighting is appropriate for your little ones, rough-and-tumble play is not typically considered actual fighting. In fact, rough play is something your kids likely think is loads of fun. Plus, it could be beneficial to their social development. You’re a worried Mama, though… we get it. To help differentiate between play fighting and problematic behavior, keep reading.

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What is play fighting?

Play fighting is also known as rough-and-tumble play. It has been defined as physical, high-energy play, such as chase and play fighting — activities often accompanied by positive feelings (think laughing and smiling) between the children involved. This type of play usually starts around preschool age and continues into early adolescence.

And while you might be concerned when your little one is crawling on top of your other child’s face, your kids typically know the difference between aggressive and fun when it comes to rough play. Regardless of how aggressive it might look to you, kids enjoy playing rough with each other. Another note: Parents can also be involved with play fighting! Just ask any dad who can’t resist wrestling around with his kids in the living room.

What are the benefits of play fighting?

You might be wondering, How can chasing each other, screaming, or wrestling one another to the ground be beneficial to my child’s social development? Dr. Stuart Brown, who has studied play and is the founder of the National Institute of Play, suggests that “the rough-and-tumble play of children actually prevents violent behavior, and that play can grow human talents and character across a lifetime.”

Other research has also shown that play fighting amongst children helps them to learn more about social interaction, including how to read body language and improve their communication skills. In addition, it can help them to independently problem solve and self-correct. For example, when the fighting gets too “rough,” they learn what is appropriate behavior and not. It encourages them to express empathy when a playmate falls and expresses discomfort.

Children learn the benefits of boundaries, too, like labeling someone “the bad guy” versus the “good guy.” Another perk? They are able to enforce a level of confidence and control over their lives that they’re not able to do in “real life.” And, of course, play fighting can be a great source of cardio exercise for your little ones. No wonder they tucker out after a game of chase!

How about the risks of play fighting?

Of course, any activity that involves elbows getting close to faces carries with it some inherent risks: the main concerns being your kid developing inappropriate responses to aggression, and having the play fighting turn into something violent and real. Which is why it’s important for parents to be able to recognize what’s play fighting and what’s real fighting between children.

When it comes to rough play, one of the key signs that all is well is when all children involved are laughing and smiling. Sure, your daughter might be tickling the bejesus out of her brother, but it’s evident that everyone is enjoying themselves. Other key differences between play fighting and aggression include:

  • Everyone is a willing and equal participant. In real fighting, there’s typically someone who is dominant and acting more aggressive than the rest.
  • The intention of play fighting is to have fun and laugh. If no one is laughing or having fun, and/or you can tell the intention is to inflict harm on another, then that’s a sign it’s real fighting.
  • Kids look at ease and comfortable with each other when they are engaging in rough-and-tumble play. With real fighting, you’ll see a lot of stressed and angry and upset faces.
  • Children will keep coming back for more — including more bodychecks and tickles — if it’s play fighting. If they are engaging in real fighting, then you’ll notice children not voluntarily returning to the interaction and/or doing anything to escape it.

What are some examples of play fighting?

So, with all that said, what does it mean to see your kids play fight? Typically, rough play involves:

  • Tackling and wrestling each other
  • Chasing one another
  • Tickling
  • Engaging in play with toy swords and other toy weapons
  • Hand-to-hand combat (perhaps mimicking fight scenes from a TV show or favorite movies)

While play fighting can definitely be nerve-racking to parents, the main takeaway of rough-and-tumble play is that it’s scarier than it looks. Before you break up the next epic wrestling match, listen for laughter and consider the benefits of roughhousing.

What is rough and tumble play?

Rough and tumble play includes play fighting, but it doesn’t stop there. During this state of play, your child may roll around, climb over other kids, and partake in energetic activities like chasing, swinging from things, and jumping. They may even share stories with other children in an animated fashion. In doing so, children learn to understand their strength and the dynamics of their own bodies. It also pushes them to learn the boundaries of other children and how to set their own.

How do you stop kids from fighting?

Play fighting is an important part of your child’s growth and a normal part of their development. However, sometimes it can turn into actual fighting. So, here are a few ways to help your little ones manage their aggression.

  • Be a good role model. Your child learns how to manage situations from you. So, try to show good problem-solving skills in front of your kid and avoid being overly contentious.
  • If your kids are always at each other’s throats, give them opportunities to work together. Give them a project they both enjoy, like coloring or baking. This will give them the chance to practice better communication.
  • Instead of stepping in and figuring out the cause of the fight, make the kids do it. After breaking them up, encourage them to discuss why they were fighting, the issues at hand, and how they can solve the problem together. If they come to a solution, they can share it with you. However, if they don’t, it’s OK. This is a great communication exercise. It’s important to show children they can discuss and manage their problems without fighting.
  • Give your kids one-on-one time. This allows children to talk about their frustrations and provides uninterrupted time to understand each child individually. You will nip underlying issues in the bud and talk about the things that make them happy or upset. This time will help you better understand why your kids clash and can be as simple as cooking or taking a walk around the block together.