Why wicked play is powerful for kids

Helen O’Callaghan hears kids wanting to be a baddie is good.

WHEN playing with her friends, your child always wants to be the wicked witch, mean stepsister or bad wolf.

Before you start insisting that she be the fairy princess, think again, says Joanna Fortune, clinical psychotherapist and director of Solamh Parent-Child Relationship Clinic. 

“Many parents try to control the roles and archetypes children play out, but wanting to be the baddie is developmentally healthy and especially common among three- to seven-year-olds.”

Fortune says this is a form of power play. 

“It helps children make sense of confusing issues and gain better understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

It helps them understand rules and ultimately control their impulses. The struggle between good and evil is core in books and stories. These are very complicated ideas and children have to work them out for themselves.”

A child, acting out good and bad roles, in pretend play is trying power from two perspectives. 

“He’s actively gaining control of things that frighten him by playing from two perspectives — the scary, negative aspect of the baddie and the more positive, character of the goody.”

While parents should avoid interfering,

Fortune suggests asking your child, for example, ‘if the bad guys lose their weapons, how could they still win — what else could they do to get their message across?’ 

“This gives the parent the chance to reassert the message about using your words to solve problems.”

Or, suggests Fortune, you could say ‘when I see you fighting with Teddy, I wonder what you’re feeling’. 

If the child says they’re angry with Teddy, the parent could explain it’s okay to have angry feelings and it helps to talk about them.

It’s important to have regular discussions with your child about the difference between real and pretend, states Fortune. 

“Ask the child ‘if your friend is the bad guy in the game, does that mean your friend is really bad or is he only pretending to be bad?’” 

If it’s tricky for your child to distinguish between real and pretend, do set rules for any superman play — you can’t use toys as weapons, you can’t jump off furniture.

What if your child wants you to be the bad one in the game? Go for it, suggests Fortune.

“Adults have all the power. Children have none. In play, she can assign you a role and have her good character punish your bad one.” 

And if she wants to be the baddie alongside you, why not say ‘we’re wicked witches but we could choose to do one kind thing’.

TOP TIPS

Limit children’s exposure to violent screen imagery.

Focus on peaceful problem-solving — if the baddies lose their weapons, how could they still win?

Provide alternative outlets — painting/dancing to music allows processing of their experience.

Ultimately, pretend play where the child is the baddie is healthy.



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