A parent asked me recently about her 8 year old boy’s tendency to create imaginary and very violent war games with his younger brother. Here’s some of my thoughts.
1. It’s common and not usually a sign of mental health problems
For many generations, children have played imaginary violent games. They make guns out of sticks, imagine shooting, blowing up, capturing and attacking the “bad guys”. Imaginary limbs get chopped off, imaginary bombs are set and there is often much yelling in pain and loud deaths. This violent fantasy also is expressed in story writing – for some children every story, joke and example involves some horrible death.
Most of the time, children who play and write in this way are happy and enjoying their violent play and stories. If children seem happy and have no other symptoms that worry us - but just play violent games happily - normally this means they are NOT traumatised, mentally ill or on the road to becoming violent criminals.
Instead violent play and imagery is an instinctive form of play which probably has its origins in our need as a species to win wars and tribal battles. This kind of violent play peaks between the ages of 4 and 10. Not all kids will do it of course, but a lot of them will. And yes, there is a gender imbalance – boys are more likely to do this than girls on average.
This means trying to “ban” the violent play altogether is often not particularly successful. We’ve all heard the kids who make guns out of clothes pegs when their toy gun is taken away.
2. There are some potential benefits of violent imaginary play
As well as it being fun, good for physical fitness and creativity - with just a small amount of occasional adult input, kids can actually learn a lot about co-operation from violent play. The occasional comment, direction or question from an adult can sometimes get little brains thinking in a variety of creative and problem solving ways. For example, some options for conversation include:
What is the most fun bit about this game? What do you like about it?
Why is the “baddie” doing that? What made him/her want to do that I wonder?
What if all the bombs, guns and swords are in a locked cupboard – what could you do to defeat him/her now?
Swap roles – what role do you like playing the most – why is that?
What if X and Y had to work together to fight the monsters/survive the natural disaster/save the city – how could they do that?
This is not something we need to or should do every time kids play – but occasionally inserting these questions or suggestions into kids’ play can help them thinking about co-operative play and problem solving.
3. We can keep helping kids to expand their play activities
If children are exclusively playing or writing about violent themes, then they often benefit from a small amount of intervention from adults to help expand their play repertoire. Helping children increase their range of interests and play activities is actually useful for lots of children.
For example, as adults we can:
Develop a list of games and activities (written or in pictures) that they can look at to choose from.
Occasionally sit with them and help them start a new game or activity to help them see the fun (and benefit) of the new game.
Help them develop further interest in topics they’ve showed mild interest
Let’s play a game together
I’ve heard this is a really interesting book/topic – shall we look it up together?
I’d like you to play one board game before tea tonight, which one is your favourite?
I’ll start your drawing with you and then you and your brother can finish it and we’ll put it on the pin up board.
Let’s come up with some other story ideas where the character beats the baddies by using his amazing skills with talking and listening.
Go to your “Fun Ideas” list on the fridge and choose something to do from that
4. It’s not okay for kids to be frightened, hurt or repeatedly excluded in any kind of play
As adults we need to intervene in play when a child gets frightened, physically hurt or repeatedly excluded. It’s not okay for children to push, shove, kick or hit – regardless of whether this is in play or not (wrestling where neither party get hurt is an exception). If children are playing imaginary violent games, they should know the rules – if someone is hurt or frightened – they need to do the following:
2. Repair (check if they are okay and offer to help) and
3. Negotiate and make agreements together to make sure it doesn’t happen again (ie no sticks, no touching, STOP means stop etc).
If someone gets hurt again, the game stops.
5. They will grow out of it
Most of the time, by the time children are 12 or 13, the violent imaginary play and story writing has subsided to some degree. At that point, they may be playing violent computer games – but that’s the topic for another blog post!
Most kids (especially boys) will play violent games and it doesn’t usually indicate mental health problems or a tendency towards violence in real life
There are benefits to this kind of play
Adults can also redirect play and expand play/writing subjects
Adults need to help children avoid hurting, frightening or excluding each other
Children generally grow out of violent play
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