"You always recommend roughhousing, and my kids do love it, but what do I do when they jump all over and get too wild? Last week they broke the lamp and there was glass all over. I was yelling like a crazy woman. I don't know which scared them more -- me or the glass." - Camille
Roughhousing is great for kids. Moving helps work out emotion. Laughter is even
more important, since it vents anxiety and creates more oxytocin, the bonding hormone.
Roughhousing builds self esteem, especially for kids who are less assertive, or
smaller than other kids their age. And like other young mammals, when kids "play"
fight, they learn to manage aggression, which makes them less likely to lash out
when they're angry.
So when kids wrestle, pillow fight, and roughhouse, it's terrific for them. But
it isn't always so good for our houses. And parents often worry that sooner or
later, someone will get hurt.
Luckily, we can usually find a way to keep things safe. But that takes some attention
on our part, and some teaching, over time. We can't just hope for the best; we
need to help our kids learn how to roughhouse safely. It's our job to notice
when our kids are getting riled up in a way that signals danger, and give them
the tools to stay safe. How?
1. Set limits BEFORE you get angry. The
minute you start getting worried that someone will get hurt, it’s a signal to do
something. No, not yell. It’s time to intervene in a positive way to make sure
things are safe. Many parents try so hard to be patient that they let things get
out of hand. Next thing you know, someone's crying, and someone (you!) is yelling.
That's not the emotional regulation you want to model.
2. Assess the danger. Is it actually dangerous?
Maybe the kids are being loud and exuberant, but having a great time and there's
no actual danger to anyone, or to your home. Or maybe a small change would make
a difference, like moving the bed closer to the dresser so they can jump onto the
bed safely. Maybe your children are having a throwing contest with blocks, but
you can substitute stuffed animals.
3. Connect before you correct. Yelling
across the room will just add to the frenzy. Instead, go physically to your child.
When a child is spinning out of control, you can't get through to her unless you
move in close in a friendly way. Make a positive connection with your child BEFORE
you ask him to do something different. “You two are having lots of fun with this rough-housing, aren’t you?”
4. Set Limits. State your rule or expectation,
firmly and kindly. “This kind of play doesn't belong in this room. I’m worried that you might roll into the lamp or the TV.”
5. Empathize as you offer an alternative, and maybe a choice. "I know it's hard to stop, but this kind of play belongs in the basement on the tumbling mat, or outside. Outside? Ok!"
6. Check in with all participants to be sure everyone is enjoying the activity. "Is everyone still having fun with this?"
If one of your kids is getting into a frenzy and the other seems a bit tense, you
can help them check in with each other. "Jaden, do you see that your brother isn't laughing? Let's stop for a minute and be sure everyone feels safe....Henry, you can tell Jaden to stop whenever you want. Do you want to practice it, right now?"
7. Help kids create safety rules. If you're worried that someone's
about to get hurt, try to resist just shutting down the action out of your own
anxiety. Instead, help your kids make rules to keep everyone safe: "Play wrestling is great, as long as you have rules to stay safe. What are your rules? Oh, when someone yells 'Stop!' both people have to stop? And no hitting? Those sound like great rules! How are they working so far? Do you need any other rules?"
8. Tears aren't the end of the world. Often,
kids do begin to cry when they get a big bump while roughhousing. Sometimes those
tears are appropriate to the injury, and your child is ready to get back into the
action after a quick hug from you. Sometimes, they sob wildly, clearly over-reacting.
That's a good thing; it means all that laughter has loosened up the feelings stuffed
in their emotional backpack, and they're taking advantage of this owie to share
the deeper wounds they can't verbalize. After a good cry, your child will be so
much more relaxed and happy, since those feelings will be "off his back." So instead
of feeling like a bad parent because someone got hurt, relax. Take the opportunity
to help your child with his big feelings, and be glad he got a chance to cry. Afterward,
ask both kids if they think they need to add any new rules to keep everyone safer
next time. You might even write the rules down and post them, so you can easily
remind them next time they start getting wild.
9. Help them wind down. Sometimes you do need to redirect to a
calmer activity. But often when kids are really wound-up, they're about to
melt down. If you sense a melt-down brewing, test it by moving in close and
setting a limit. "Ok, Sweetie, time to calm down now. That's enough rowdiness." If
she calms down, great! If he bursts into tears, great! Better those feelings should
come out by crying in your arms than by his hurting his little brother.
10. Make sure your kids have a safe place to be wild. Like puppies
or bear cubs, kids need to roll around, wrestle, climb and jump. Our modern lives
don't always offer them that opportunity. If you don't have a yard, or a basement
with a tumbling mat, make their room safe for roughhousing, and make sure they
get plenty of playtime at the playground or park. If you don't, your couch will
start to look a lot like a trampoline, and your lamps will be living dangerously.
Notice how much easier it is when you set the limit BEFORE you get mad? Just calmly,
kindly, cheerfully do whatever is necessary to keep the situation, and your anger,
from getting out of hand. But don't over-react and just shut down all exuberant
play. Wildness is normal for kids. It's usually not an emergency, even if
there are some bumps and bruises. Tears aren't the end of the world. And broken
glass and yelling are always optional.