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Reassurance About Roughhousing

Roughhousing is physical, which means that it integrates our bodies with our brains, and promotes physical fitness, release of tension, and well-being.  Roughhousing is interactive, which means it builds close connections between children and parents, especially as we get down on the wrestling mat and join children in their world.  Roughhousing is rowdy, which means that it pushes us out of our inhibitions and inflexibilities.

Putting this all together, the Art of Roughhousing is the art of physical, interactive, rowdy play.  Add in a dose of thoughtfulness and responsibility, and roughhousing is just as safe as any other type of play.

We believe that safety comes from knowledge, close supervision, and carefully paying attention—not from saying “no.”  But we do need to use common sense.  To keep it safe, follow some basic guidelines:

  • Pay attention to joints, like elbows and wrists.
  • Roughhouse on grass, a tumbling mat, or soft carpeting.
  • No headlocks, eye gouges, or kidney punches!
  • Stay close by so you can “spot” your children as they explore what their bodies can do, and so you can step in right away if things get too rough.

Some reluctant roughhousers worry about the overall aggressiveness of this kind of play, even if no one is getting hurt.  But roughhousing is actually very different from aggression.  It’s even been shown to lower aggressiveness, and increase self-control.  You know you’re in the zone of good roughhousing play when the energy level goes up, physical activity increases, and exuberance bursts out.  This kind of wild play is totally different from excessive wildness or aggression.  You can tell by the joy and sparkle in the child’s eyes, the freshness and vitality of the playing, and their desire for eye contact and more playful physical contact with you.  After some high-quality roughhousing, children are happy, content, and want to be close. That’s the opposite of overly aggressive play, which always ends in anger and distance.

Besides safety and aggression worries, another reason that some parents are reluctant to roughhouse is that they have seen kids get totally revved up, and then the playtime ends in conflicts or meltdowns.  This spiraling and escalating can be easily avoided with two simple techniques:

  1. Start roughhousing earlier, so that there is time for a natural winding down before bedtime.  If you try to forcibly calm down a child who is just getting warmed up, you will definitely have a power struggle.
  2. Call out “freeze!” frequently during roughhousing.  (Actually, we like to use funny words, like Pineapple! to signal the quick freeze).  After a few seconds, start up again.  This helps children learn how to rev up, then calm down, then rev up, then calm down, which trains their brains not to spiral out of control.


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