Building Resilience through Rough Play

Author: Emma Langham
Clinical Psychologist

The coming week will be full of thoughts of dads in readiness for Father’s Day, and so it should be. Dads contribute to child development in unique ways, and one of them is through being rough! Yes, you heard that right. From bucking bronco rides, steamrolling, or throwing kids sky high until they giggle so hard it hurts, a dad’s role in risky play for kids is a crucial element to supporting their social and emotional development. As a psychologist who has worked with child protection cases, rough play is something I am passionate about advocating for. Seems a contradiction doesn’t it?! Stay with me.

When we think of quality bonding and attachment we usually conjure up images of safety and nurturing, gentle cuddles, quiet time, soft kisses… and most often with mothers. But of course attachment and bonding with dads is equally important, and dads are often the parent who promote exploration and risk in ways mums might not. Perception of risk is generally different between mums and dads.

Just this past week, rough and tumble, or rough housing play has been a particularly hot topic in my consult room with parents and when visiting early educators, so I felt I best to share what I know! Especially when it turns out one of the dads I was encouraging to play rough with his 4 year old son who is having social problems at daycare, admitted to being a pro wrestler, but hadn’t realised the importance of parent-child rough housing. He believed that being rough may encourage his son to be aggressive with peers. But the opposite couldn’t be more true, with research showing that rough play between parents and children leads to LESS behaviour problems, providing the rough play follows a few simple rules and is of good quality.

So how does rough play benefit kids?

Getting physical obviously helps promote physical activity, but more than that, rough interactions with a stronger adult helps kids explore the capabilities of their body, forming brain maps of what their bodies can do in physical situations not usually replicated in other play (for instance, being held upside down and thrown onto a bed helps them map what happens with their body this situation, assisting to form a better sense of their body in space, and motor planning ability).

Rough play helps kids learn emotional and behavioural self-regulation and self-control through the experience of intense emotions that escalate, pause during anticipation and build ups, shift rapidly if the play does not go as expected, and then wind down to a natural ending. The back and forth of role changes assists the child to learn behavioural limits and practice experiencing big emotions in a safe space that can be managed by the adult if needed.

Risk taking battles also help to build confidence, self-esteem and resilience through learning the social dance of maintaining the relationship in the midst of battle, and also in experiencing or issuing repairs if behaviours go ‘too far’ from either side. It’s easy to imagine how this assists empathy development, even though mostly kids will respond with more raucous laughter to dad’s ‘pain’ during play, it helps kids learn the difference between ‘pretend or acceptable levels of pain’ compared to genuine cries of pain, and the need to respond differently.

Preschoolers who do not engage in parent-child rough house play tend to get into more fights with peers and take harmful physical risks according to local researcher, Richard Fletcher from The University of Newcastle. He also asserts that skills such as how to pay attention and switch between tasks, self-regulatory behaviours essential for doing well at school, are developed through rough and tumble play.

And don’t leave the girls behind – roughhousing can benefit both genders, often in different ways. Some have suggested that for girls, rough play is a method for them practicing a way to make sure their voice is heard.

So when is rough and tumble play good quality?

Rough play must of course be FUN. Anticipation builds excitement and intensity, which helps children practice managing big emotions in the context of a safe relationship. If kids start crying, get cranky, refuse participation or are ‘over it’ then it’s time to stop. Kids should never be forced into play or overly cajoled or teased into play. It is crucial that the child’s voice is always respected and any cries to stop or slow down are responded to with acceptance by the parent.

The dad needs to be attuned to the child’s abilities and interests, choosing games that provide opportunity for the child to display skills but also be challenged (even at a very basic level), and be able to motivate the child to re-engage if they start to lose interest or get overwhelmed. Learning to trust their dad to manage the aggression between them is and to enjoy the child’s attempts to win.

There needs to be a balance of the child winning and losing, taking turns being the one calling the shots and the one succumbing to being overpowered – or ‘dominance swapping’. The chance of achieving mastery over a foe superior in age, strength and status, while being loved, is an exhilarating experience. And of course, accepting ‘losing’ the battle helps to appreciate social status and acknowledgement of limits which is important in later life. Dads who win too often need to practice losing!

So honour dad this Father’s Day with a good reciprocating ‘rough up’! It’s a great way to let him know how much you care 🙂

For more information see ‘Rough and tumble play quality: theoretical foundations for a new measure of father–child interaction’, Richard Fletcher , Jennifer St George & Emily Freeman, Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle (Oct 2012).

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