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Play Fighting Teaches Empathy and Resilience

Play fighting teaches empathy and resilience. It’s the opposite of what many parents think will happen.

Parents who are using a peaceful or connected parenting approach are sometimes reluctant to allow their kids to do rough and tumble play. With good intentions, they want to teach peacefulness, not violence. They also want to keep their kids safe.

While safety should always be a primary consideration, rough and tumble play can be very helpful for kids’ nervous system development. The main reason is that it helps them have an experience of being somewhat activated (in their sympathetic nervous system) while also, at the same time, feeling safe.

This kind of “practice” for your child’s developing nervous system can be especially helpful for highly sensitive children, who tend to get overactivated very easily. The key is to start out in very small amounts, and create safety during the experience.

How the nervous system develops

As children are growing and their nervous system wiring is developing, associations are a big part of how memories  and patterns get wired together in their nervous system.

So, for instance, the smell of chocolate chip cookies might remind them of baking cookies with you (or grandma’s house) and bring a feeling of warmth, or excitement, or safety to their system. It will depend on their past experiences with that smell. An experience of being tickled might very quickly turn into panic, if there’s a past memory association with having been overstimulated by tickling when someone didn’t stop soon enough.

Many of our sensory memories have associations.

Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation, which is responsible for the fight/flight response, is also (in smaller doses) what is needed when we want to be physically active. For example, if your child wants to play soccer, or go for a run, that requires sympathetic nervous system activation. Those are, of course, usually safe and pleasant experiences, and don’t involve a fight/flight response. 

It’s only when the SNS activation is greater than the nervous system’s capacity, that a person starts to show signs of a fight/flight response. So, the fight/flight response happens when the SNS activation feels like too much, or more than they can tolerate. Rough and tumble play can help increase your child’s capacity, or in other words, help them develop more ability to tolerate that feeling of activation in their system so that it doesn’t push them into overactivation and all the challenging behaviors that go with it.

Rough and tumble play, especially with a parent who is able to pause or stop when it seems a little too activating,  can help your child have an experience of being activated, and also being in social engagement or safety, at the same time.  They can see that your face is friendly and safe and non-threatening, and at the same time they can feel the activation in their body, so it can make an association between feeling that activation and also feeling safe.

That helps build your child’s capacity. This is important because having more capacity is what helps all of us tolerate higher levels of activation (and stress) at times. Essentially, it can help your child become more resilient.

Creating safety is essential

If you’re going to practice rough and tumble play with your kids, there are important caveats to ensure you’re building capacity rather than traumatizing. Creating safety in the experience is essential. You can do this by:

  • Ensuring basic safety. Ground rules can help (e.g., no hitting, no biting, no punching or kicking, no head locks).
    • Basic safety includes emotional safety. No teasing or humiliating.
  • Agreeing on a code word that signals you need to stop right away, and stopping immediately when they use it.
  • Keeping it short, especially at first. That’s because they may become activated quite quickly or easily at first, and in order to give them a pleasant experience and create a positive memory association, it needs to end well. (and if you misstep, just repair).
  • Keeping your eyes soft and kind–unless you’re being dramatic as you’re falling to the ground “dying” because they’ve “overpowered” you. 😊
  • Attuning to your child – Noticing their facial expression, eyes, voice and body language. Even if their voice changes a little bit, or their eyes start to look a bit anxious or overwhelmed by the activation, it’s important to back off right away. 
  • Increasing their confidence and sense of power by allowing them to use their physical strength, and meeting it with an appropriate level of resistance.*

Some of these examples not only create safety, but also give them an experience of feeling empowered and able to use their voice to set boundaries. 

How it helps kids regulate themselves 

To go back to how the nervous system gets wired, when rough and tumble play is coupled with safety, it can help your child have a “positive” (safe) experience of feeling activation in their nervous system, and this can help them to get better at regulating themselves.

That’s because learning to regulate their nervous system is never about preventing them from getting activated. It’s about giving their nervous system lots of practice with moving into activation, and back out again to a calmer state. They get to have an experience of feeling safe in that state, and they become more able to tolerate the activation without reverting to the challenging, acting out behavior of a fight/flight response.

What’s your experience with this?

*There are more suggestions and details in Lawrence J. Cohen’s book, Playful Parenting.

**Image Credit: Austin Pacheco, Unsplash


Lawrence J. Cohen. (2001). Playful Parenting: An exciting new approach to raising  children that will help you nurture close connections, solve behavior problems, encourage confidence. New York: Ballantine Books.

Mariah Moser, Course Materials, Relational Somatic Therapy.