It can be hard to understand aggressive play: things like teasing, pretend fighting, mimicking of superheroes, pointing toy or pretend guns, horsing around in a rough-and-tumble way, and dramatizing battles for dominance and power. It can sometimes be difficult to tell play fighting and real fighting apart.

Play fighting and real fighting, though, each have cues that help differentiate fun from no fun. While play fighting, children will be making eye contact, looking for a response from their playmate (rather than being blind with rage), and laughing. No one will be getting hurt, except maybe by accident. Anthony Pellegrini, a psychologist who has studied rough-and-tumble play, describes playful aggression as running, chasing, and wrestling, with smiles and laughter included. The stronger playmate holds back his or her full strength so that each playmate feels things are pretty even and in control, and when the play fighting is finished, the playmates keep playing together.

Real fighting is different and not about fun. The cues to real fighting include hitting with fists, shoving, pushing, and kicking. At least one playmate is usually frowning or scowling. Another may be crying. When real fighting is over, children will go their separate ways unhappily. The child who is stronger does not hold back, and someone more often than not gets hurt. Bullies will sometimes disguise their violence as playful, but they escalate playful fighting into real aggression.

When you observe any aggressive play, try to stay calm and relaxed. It may truly be play. When you see rough-housing get too rough for the surroundings or situation, or see real aggressive behavior come out of play, you need to step in and help the children cool down. Real fighting masked as play is simply violence, and adults need to intervene to help children find other ways to express their feelings of aggression. Destructive aggressive play if ignored will only promote more violence.

Play fighting and real fighting are different in the way the play proceeds, and it matters less what exactly is being played. Determine whether the children are getting lost in violence or are having a good time. Are they mastering their feelings of aggression, or are they getting out of hand, taking sadistic pleasure in hurting others?

One way to help kids learn from aggressive play is to actually spend time playing with them. Sharing rambunctious play time allows adults to protect children and to model how to express aggressive feelings in a safe way. Connecting through rough-and-tumble play also allows parents and other adults to spot trouble in a child’s behavior before it turns into Trouble with a capital T. If the fun begins to shift to not fun, you can call for a break, or in some situations you might become very dramatic—fall over, say, and get all involved in giggling together with your child. Play is for having fun, learning, and growing.

More to consider:  Trying things out through aggressive play . . .

When children are play fighting in a healthy way, they can experiment with their physical strength and with their ideas about power and superpower. As you play with and supervise your children, try to help them keep the play lighthearted and creative. The “bad guys” can be scary, sure, but at the same time funny, bumbling, and silly.