The following is a guest post (the second in a series of three) from Carla Saunders the founder of Parenting From The Inside Out. Carla is an experienced and qualified child behaviour expert (ex NHS). She can help parents to first understand and then to find solutions for any behavioural difficulties, ranging from sleep problems, and anxiety issues to difficult teens/attachment issues.
I’m often asked about aggressive, angry play. Should we ‘allow’ it? Is it OK? When should we be worried? How do we stop it? Where should we draw a line?
Aggression and anger are subjective. One persons angry is another persons assertive, one persons ‘being honest’ is another’s tactless, another’s aggressive is someone’s ‘ a bit het up’ – it is such a subjective experience brought about by so many individual elements such as family cultures, relationship experiences and the context of an exchange.
So it is for children. They are all different, their experiences so individual, and their play reflects that. However, their play is an expression of their inner life, their subjective experience and so when that becomes ‘locked into’ aggressive play, I would wonder about what may be going on for that child. However, I wouldn’t try to stop it. I want to understand it first.
Feelings start in our bodies. We ‘feel’ things physiologically and so for children helping them to locate these feelings is primary. Watching them and narrating what they play out is helpful – and matching the level of their experience – meeting high emotion with high ( and yet controlled) emotion so that they feel understood is vital. Saying what we see physically – for example ” your shoulders are tight, your mouth is a line, your feet are stamping so loudly on the floor” provides them both with a sense of being seen, and sense of being taken seriously.
A few weeks ago I worked with a family with a very distressed little boy. He wasn’t ‘allowed’ to play out in a ‘rough’ way – his parents would either redirect this play or walk into another room whilst he continued it alone. However, all of his play was angry and ‘fighty’ and at school he struggled to play ‘nicely’ with peers. I encouraged him to play freely in our family play session and soon enough the aggressive element to his play began. Killing other animals when playing with the zoo creatures, smacking puppets and not letting them be cuddled better, leaving them to drown in the ‘sea’ and other such horrors… Whilst playing I joined him in his destruction, narrating what I saw and giving an empathic response as the ‘victim’ puppet or animal, keeping my tone chiming with his – matching his emotional affect.
His parents looked on – anxious and unsmiling, despite prior warning that this is the approach I would take. Their faces showed their fear that it would all get out of hand, that he would never stop, that it would run wild without end. I encouraged them to join in the play by being playful myself, reminded them of the contained nature of a play session ( it has a clearly demarked beginning and end) and we ended the session all playing together, with little resolution of the high drama seen by the toys. The toys were left hurt, alone, desperate, drowned.
The family left. Once home, the boy asked to write a note to the puppet he’d hurt. He did that alone. He’d never shown empathy like this before. He slept the night through, soundly in his own bed for once and in the morning was affectionate and warm. Since then he has been measurably calmer and school too have seen a difference in both his play and his relationships.
He was heard. He felt understood. His anger didn’t push people away or frighten them. It was allowed. It was contained. After 4 sessions, the angry play has ceased.
Sometimes this work feels like magic. Such simple approaches work so well when sensitively assessed and executed.