The appearance of aggressive themes in the pretend play and conversation of three- and four-year-olds can be a sign of developmental progress. As parents, we want our children to be appropriately assertive and independent, so we do want to foster the feelings that can fuel assertiveness—but at the same time control aggression, such as hitting or breaking things, that becomes hurtful or harmful.

Assertiveness is part of our emotional life. Over time, it will be impossible for your child to avoid dealing with some aggression. As the parent, you can offer your child some outlets for assertiveness while setting limits to keep impulsive behavior in check. Let her play out themes of power while staying within such limits as never inflicting bodily harm or deliberately breaking toys. These situations will let your child know that she can test her aggression, understanding that you will be there to rein her in if her aggression goes too far.

You may see your child experiment with power in many ways, whether in his use of words or through imaginative play. Your child may take on a more verbally feisty stance with you and challenge your authority, for example. As your child plays, his taking on the role of a superhero, casting a magic spell, or winning a game are all part of learning about power. Every time your child imagines himself bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, and more powerful than that scary creature in a dream, some sense of control over life is regained.

At this stage of development, your child is bridging feelings of vulnerability to real and imagined threats. Your developing bundle of love will need to act out feeling powerful along with receiving extra love and empathy from you as reassurance that checks and balances exist for the “bad” things that can happen. In the process of mentoring your child on how to be appropriately assertive, you can help him use words to convey and extend all of life’s themes—from power and assertiveness to caring and loving-kindness.

Aggressive themes combined with your warmth and empathy will help your child learn to become a warm, caring, and appropriately assertive person.