Why Aggression in Play Benefits Your Child’s Emotional Development

Why Aggression in Play Benefits Your Child’s Emotional Development

Despite how it might seem at first, aggression in play can actually be a good thing, especially in play therapy!

As parents, it’s completely normal to feel concerned when we see our children being aggressive during play. We often try to change their play behaviour depending on our own histories with aggression and the level of threat our brains perceive.

However, despite how it might seem at first, aggression in play can actually be a good thing, especially in play therapy!

Aggression in Play

Play is a child’s natural language. It is how they communicate their inner thoughts, feelings and experiences. Aggression in play is no different. When we allow children to engage in aggressive play in a safe and controlled environment, we actually help them to work through complex emotions.

Whether they are pretending to be a superhero fighting a villain, stabbing an enemy with a sword, or even throwing toys across the room, this type of play allows children to express and explore feelings of anger, frustration and power in a way that is natural and healthy.

It often shocks parents when I welcome aggression in play. But as I reassure them, from my perspective as an experienced play psychotherapist, not only does aggression in play give me a valuable glimpse into their child’s inner world so I can better understand their emotions, needs and struggles, it also opens the door to valuable learning for their child!

A Neuroscience Perspective

Neuroscience research suggests that when aggression in play is supported in a safe and nurturing environment, it can actually help to rewire neural pathways in the brain.

When children engage in play, especially aggressive play, they are activating different areas of the brain associated with emotions, problem-solving, and self-regulation. Over time, this leads to the creation of new neural pathways that support healthier emotional responses.

Emotional Brain

For example, the brain’s “emotional center”, the amygdala, plays a crucial role in processing emotions, particularly fear and anger. During aggressive play, the amygdala is active, signalling that the child is experiencing strong emotions.

As adults, we often feel the need to rescue our children out of their discomfort because we believe it is harmful. While it is quite natural to want to move away from painful memories and emotional states, we may unknowingly hinder our children’s ability to heal.

When we try to avoid the intensity of the displayed aggression, we reinforce the message in the brain that there is a threat or a challenge. And it is this threat that keeps the nervous system in a state of dysregulation.

Thinking Brain

Because young children’s prefrontal cortex is still developing, they often have difficulty regulating their emotions effectively. My role as the play therapist, therefore, is to become the child’s external regulator.

When children display intense emotions, I don’t try to change their behaviour or make them feel wrong. Instead, I stay fully present during these activation states and mindfully access my own feelings. As play continues, I demonstrate how I regulate these intense feelings and emotions by either saying what I feel inside my body, using my breath or moving my body.

As I do this, not only do I help soothe the child’s regulation system, but I also help strengthen their prefrontal cortex by playfully teaching them new regulation skills. Over time, this helps children to get in touch with their internal state and improve their ability to regulate their own emotions.

Stress Reduction

To conclude, aggression in play is not as scary as it looks. In fact, it has the remarkable ability to help reduce stress and frustration.

When we remain calm in the midst of our children’s intense emotions and provide them with a nurturing environment where they are able to express aggression in play, they will feel safe and supported. And, from this place of being gently held, our children can freely explore and integrate their intense thoughts, feelings and emotions.

In the process they develop important emotional regulation skills which leads to a reduction in stress and the ability to cope with challenging situations more effectively.

If you are concerned about your child’s aggression in play, take the first step towards understanding and supporting them by booking a play therapy session today.

Here at Sage Affect, we specialise in offering expert guidance and support for children and families navigating the complexities of emotional well-being. Our services are grounded in evidence-based practices and delivered with a compassionate touch. We use play therapy to empower children in managing anxiety and cultivating resilience for a successful journey through life.

Explore how we can work with you to nurture your child’s emotional growth.

Laurinda Jones Blog

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