20 playful ways to handle a child's aggression

20 Playful Ways To Heal Aggression

Aggression is common in toddlers, but that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. The Hand in Hand Parenting philosophy is based on the fact that all children are naturally, good, loving and co-operative. Sometimes hurt feelings overwhelm their limbic system – the emotional part of the brain, and when this happens, their pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for rational and reasonable thinking can’t function well. In moments of upset children lack impulse control, and can’t always remember in the moment that it’s wrong to hit or kick other children or us.

So what can we do? Patty Wipfler explains how we can heal the deep fears that get in the way of our child’s good thinking and cause them to lash out aggressively in her book, Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges.

When we sense our children are acting off-track, or we know the kind of situations in which they hit or kick then we can do a ‘friendly safety patrol’ and be right there to catch the aggression before it happens. For example, we can gently take our child’s hand and say, “I’m sorry you feel bad, but I can’t let you hit.”

When we do this some of the feelings might bubble up that was behind the behavior.

For example, our child might cry, with frustration and anger, at the child who has the toy they want, or who said something that made them cross. We can Staylisten to these feelings, knowing that every time we do so we prevent the likelihood of aggressive outbursts occurring.

It might be that our child starts wriggling away from us and laughing, releasing the stress and upset they feel through giggles. Then we can use Playlistening to playfully set limits, providing we feel calm and can continue to keep everyone safe. By being playful we are not giving the message that aggression is okay.

We can still Set Limits, telling a child ”I can’t let you hit” while allowing them to have their feelings.

Laughter might not always seem an appropriate way to handle aggression in the moment. It can be jarring with the strong emotions that our child is feeling, and they may simply need us to Set Limits and Staylisten.

However, Playlistening and roughhousing can also be used proactively at other times to help a child to release the fears that can cause aggression. Playlistening puts them in the more powerful role and can build the physical confidence so they’re less likely to lash out for real. This as well as Setting Limits and Staylistening in the moment can help to get to the root cause of aggression.

Many parents assume that if we laugh and play around the topic of aggression, that it gives our children mixed messages and can encourage it. However, have you ever noticed the way mammals like kittens or puppies play? They tumble around and play fight without inflicting real damage. This kind of rough and tumble play has actually been shown to improve children’s social skills, and build their emotional intelligence – the very things that will help them to be less aggressive. Our children have a deep sense of what is play and what is real aggression when they are thinking straight. And when they’re not we can be ‘on patrol’ to set limits.

Below is a list of 20 playful games that can help to channel your toddler’s aggression into fun and giggles, with lots of physical connection to help them build their confidence and release fear and stress.

Thanks to all those instructors who contributed their wonderful ideas!

If you’d like to be more playful with your child, get this free checklist: 25 Ways To More Playful Parenting

#1. My lovely sweet baby – When my daughter was about 12 months out she would sometimes scratch my face when she got tired. One afternoon, I moved her hands away from my face and said  in a playful tone, ‘’you are my lovely sweet baby, so sweet and gentle.’’ I would look into her eyes, and gently stroke her face or her foot. Then she would attack me with her arms grabbing or her legs kicking. I would respond by moving in close and giving her a hug to ‘protect’ myself. This elicited a lot of giggles. She really got into this game, and understood that my words and gentle stroking where a signal for her to attack! I could see her becoming more and more relaxed as we continued. She was peaceful and joyful. We finished the game and she fell asleep within seconds. That was rarity at the time.

#2. Lovely Daddy From Stephanie Parker, in the UK.  My daughter was going through a stage of being really aggressive towards her dad. I started to intervene in two ways. If she went to hit him I’d get there first and I’d hold her arm and hand and stroke him instead saying “Ah, this is how we touch Daddy,” stroking Daddy like a pet. She’d giggle and pretend to go along with it but then try and hit him again and I’d keep repeating it until the tension had gone and she no longer needed to hit him. Secondly, when she called him names like stupid daddy, I would say ‘Lovely daddy, beautiful daddy’ and she would giggle and continue to say stupid daddy and it would go on again until the tension was gone.

#3. Swing Giggles – When your child is on a baby swing, invite them to kick you when they swing towards you by saying ”I hope you don’t kick me!” Catch their kicks in a playful, gentle way. Or end up falling over with mock exaggeration, or fly back across the grass with the ‘power’ of their kicks. This will have them laughing and relishing the power.

#4. The vigorous snuggle – This is a wonderful way to heal aggression in the moment, by moving in close, snuggling with our child, planting raspberries, and meeting your child’s aggression with play. Rachel Schofield, explains how it works in this post here.

#5. Push me off the sofa – I used to play this game with my daughter and her friend who I would sometimes babysit. It often helped to diffuse tension between them if they could conspire against me, and push me off the sofa with lots of giggles. I would sometimes resist a bit more, to give them more of a chance to push against me, and struggle before finally falling on the floor. You can also play this one on a bed. Clare Harrison says, to her daughter “please, please don’t push me off the bed! Oh, I’m so scared! I don’t want to fall off the bed!” She laughs and pushes me off the bed; I’m very dramatic and loud with limbs akimbo, falling down as messily as I can, protesting all the while.

#6. Push me off the sofa – extreme version – My daughter would push me off the sofa, but I would fly off across the room with the ‘strength’ of her push. I would end up as far as the kitchen or the bathroom. Sometimes I would even open the front door and fall out and tell her it was because her push was so strong!

#7. Push Me Over – I would kneel on a bed while my daughter was standing, and say, ”I’m so strong, I’m the strongest mummy ever. I bet you can’t push me over.” My daughter would try and I would put up a bit of resistance at first, and then always let her win.

#8. Interception Games from Isabela Budusan. When I see my daughter approaching her sister about to be aggressive I take her in my arms before she reaches her, and make the airplane game with her, or take her like a bag on my shoulder and run through the house saying ”look what I’ve got here; a bag of potatoes!” or peanuts, depending on her mood.

#9. Bed Chase –  This works well on a soft bed. Tell your child you’re really fast and they wouldn’t be able to catch you. Let them chase you then catch you, and then  say, ”I bet you can’t pull me down,” and then let them wrestle you onto the bed.

#10. Bed Wrestling From Clare Harrison. I have two big boys (12 and 9) and a 2.5 year old girl who can get really frustrated being the little one. When I notice she’s starting to go off track (hitting, for eg), I will make space to play outside of a tricky situation, usually to wrestle. I looooove to wrestle with her, it’s really open, but all about her having the power and getting to be the tough one. I might get her onto our big bed and say things like “you get to be the boss, you tell me what you want me to do.” If she’s not sure, I might say “shall I crash you?” and “chase” after her lumbering and silly. This gets her leading pretty quickly as it will either be “yes” or “no mum!” I pretend that she is sooo much faster and stronger and cleverer than me: I fall off the bed, I let her “shove” me over, anything to get her laughing and feeling powerful. If she is still not sure about what she can do I might say “gosh, I hope no one hits me with that pillow” or something like that.

Play with your child feel difficult? You may have triggers stopping your play. This list will help.

#11. The love gun game, from Lawrence Cohen. This is a game in which the adult getting shot simply has to love the child who shot them. While playing this game, the adult opens up his arms and takes a step toward the child with a big, silly, love-struck smile on his face, saying “Now, that you shot me, I just have to love you!”. As soon as the child shots him, a chase starts around the house and, when the child is caught, he gets hugged and loved.

#12. Dinosaur Bites By Anca Deaconu. Ever since my son was three, he has shown an increasing interest in the world of dinosaurs and one of his favorite games is about him being a strong carnivore dinosaur who “bites” (and eventually “kills”) a weak herbivore, his meal (and that is, of course, the role assigned to me 🙂 So, inspired by Cohen’s idea above, I thought I would give it a try. Each time he would bite me, I would pretend that I was given “the love bite” and that I am now under its spell. And, the more he’d “bite” me, the more I’d love him. So I chased him around the house, hugging and kissing him and enjoying his laughter and giggling. I was amazed to see how this game, that I have initially perceived as an aggressive one, has turned into a connection game, one that led to an unexpected surprise: later that day, my son made a drawing for me: a pink unicorn. Because – he said, “girls like unicorns, mommy and you are a girl”.

#13. Butterflies from Rachel Schofield. My 4 year old had gone to story time at the library with his granny which had been about butterflies. He came home and was offtrack which culminated in him wielding a tennis racket aggressively. I moved in and stopped him, got the racket off him, stayed close. He tried kicking and punching and I protected myself saying, “I’m not going to let you do that”. After a little while I sensed he was a bit stuck. The aggression was losing intensity but not going to release feelings. So I shifted to Playlistening. He had his feet against me and I was holding his hands, “Look! You’re like a butterfly” and waved his hands around. He smiled, “pick me up so I can fly” So I picked him up and flew him around waving his arms, he giggled and smiled and was in better shape when I landed him back on the ground.

#14. Sock Fight – This one is fun for all the family. Everyone has to try to take each other’s socks off. Put up a bit of resistance with older children, but go for the giggles and let them win eventually. You could try making a big fuss out of how good you are at sock fights, and never lose, and then be a ‘bad loser’ when you end up losing your socks.

#15. Grass Fight – If you’re somewhere with freshly moan grass tell your child how much you hate having grass thrown on you, inviting them to play. You could also try it with dried leaves on an autumn day. Or just tell your child, ‘I really hate having grass thrown in my hair,” I hope no-one does it. Run away, let them chase you and catch up with you, and let them tackle you to the floor.

#16. Pillow Fight – Pretty self-explanatory really. Let the kids win, and always take the less powerful role, so they don’t feel overpowered.  

#17. My precious object -Pick up a book, cushion, or any object that isn’t really too precious. Tell your child it’s your precious object that you never want to let go of. Hold it really tight then let them wrestle you for it.

#18. Indoor snowball fight – Hand in Hand’s Maya Coleman in Washington DC recommends an indoor snowball fight. Or alternatively just roll up some socks and use them instead.

#19. Splashing Games – In the bath, or outside with a hose or water pistols, on a warm day, or at the pool. Make a big deal about how you want your clothes/hair/face to stay dry. Tell your child that you’re the world best expert on staying dry. Let your child get you soaking.

#20. Catching And Escaping – My daughter loves to have music on and run across the room from one side to the other while I sit in the middle on the floor with my arms outstretched waiting to catch her and missing her each and every time. Then I might also catch her, and hold my arms really loose but say, ”my love is so strong, that I’m not sure you’ll be able to escape” and let her escape each time. This is a fun physical game that helps release tension, and build connection, giving a big dose of love.

Looking for more inspiration?

Join our online video class Helping Your Child with Aggression. And if you’ve got any games you’d like to share we’d love to hear from you!

Kate Orson is a mother to one daughter. Originally from the UK she now lives in Basel, Switzerland.

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