Family Life

Is it Rough Play or Bullying? How to See the Difference and Intervene

Sometimes it is difficult to know when rough-and-tumble play is shifting into something more nefarious. As children grow up, they test limits, and we have to trust our judgment. When it comes to bullying, our instant reaction is to cut out any roughhousing and conduct we consider red flags. But, we can’t form a bubble around them, either. We can only strive to understand why kids do what they do and notice when they’ve crossed lines.

Rough play includes wrestling, tumbling around, and even play fighting. It is a basic instinct that actually helps children develop an array of skills and life lessons. But, most of all, kids enjoy playing aggressively, and it is up to parents to know when it has gone too far.

Rough-and-tumble play helps kids understand their strengths. By no means does that mean we should let our kids hurt one another. It does mean, however, that they learn about themselves when they show newfound power, which boosts self-esteem.

However, there must be boundaries, and rough play helps teach those limits. Siblings are notorious for testing one another’s limits, but not every kid has a brother or sister.

“When Shawn was little, he and his dad would set up wrestling nights. They never lasted long, but I saw the exhilaration on his face when his dad would let him ‘win.’” Toni Gibson recalls about her now 12-year-old son. “As he grew up, he started to really win, and we saw him test his limits more and more with his peers. We made a decision to enroll him in a karate class. We watch him now teach his friends how to safely fight and when they’ve gone too far.”

Part of being a parent is stopping things that we feel will hurt our kids. And, not all fighting is actual fighting. We know our kids, and sometimes we have to trust they will signal when they’re really in distress. The line between rough play and bullying gets more defined as they get older. When kids are mutually enjoying rough-and-tumble play, they smile, laugh, and openly display excitement. Once the rolling around is over, they continue to play with one another. 

Frowning, crying, fear responses, or anger are not signs of play fighting. Kids will stop socializing with one another when it has gone too far or develops into bullying. And, bullying can come out of what feels like nowhere. “My daughter had a best friend for most of her childhood. When they turned 12, things seemed to shift, and power became lopsided. Sara started begging for me to get her out of situations, and that her long-time friend got grabby, forceful, and demanding.” Alexi Lee continues, “We all sat down together and talked about bullying and boundaries. The chat went a long way to repairing their friendship and developing what a healthy relationship looks like with communication.”

The sweetest kid can turn to bully behavior for many reasons–lack of attention, troubles at home or school, or learned behavior. But, the core cause is generally the same. Children are in search of their own power. 

As Cheryl Brodnax of Crossroads Professional Counseling explains, “Bullying is about power. The bully seeks power at the expense of someone else who they perceive to either be weak or a threat.”

If your child is the target of a bully, Brodnax offers sound solutions, “Helping kids build their confidence in who they are and in their strengths can help keep them from buckling to the demoralizing tactics of bullies. As well, there is strength in numbers, so help your child talk with their friends about having a zero tolerance for bullying. Sticking together and up for one another can help defuse bullying because the child is no longer isolated.”

One thing you need to know is that no one is alone. Brodnax gives parents a roadmap of resources when addressing bullying. “It’s important to become educated on your rights so you can determine the best course of action. There are many anti-bullying laws or policies that can help deal with your child’s situation. Again, bullying is about power, so helping your child regain their power is important. In cases where laws are broken, charges may be filed. In minor situations, your child may take the lead in dealing with the bully, as it helps to develop problem-solving skills and confidence. If your child’s self-esteem and mood are deteriorating, it could be helpful to engage them in counseling. It’s important for kids to feel heard, understood, and helped. Let them know you’re in their corner and that there is hope.” 

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