What to Know About Play Fighting

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on February 15, 2024
3 min read

If you're worried when you see your children wrestling with each other, you're not alone. Many parents feel exhausted when they see their kids fighting. They may be concerned that their children will break something. Or they might worry that it’s a sign of a deep-seated sibling rivalry.

Play fighting is a normal part of childhood and may even be healthy for your children. Here’s what you need to know about this rough-and-tumble style of play.

Scientists don’t know exactly why children love to pretend to fight. But play fighting, in one form or another, is popular among many types of animals.

Humans are no different. Boys traditionally spend more time engaging in rough-and-tumble play than girls do. But many boys and girls seem to favor play fighting over other types of play.

Some scientists think that children pretend to fight as a way to learn social norms. They believe fighting can help kids learn to cooperate and communicate.Pretending to fight may also help kids figure out how to stay safe in the real world.

There are many reasons rough-and-tumble play can be good for your kids.

For example, play fighting can help your children strengthen their bodies. Their muscles and their lungs get a workout from running, jumping, climbing, and wrestling. It can also help them release energy and get the hour of physical activity that doctors recommend for kids each day.

Pretending to fight can also help children learn important problem-solving skills.

Think about when your kids shout things like “that’s not fair!” or “time out!” This shows that they have expectations when they pretend to fight. Even though the rules aren’t written down, children know the difference between pretend fighting and real fighting.

Play fighting works only because there’s some level of turn-taking and cooperation involved. The more children pretend to fight, the more they sharpen these skills and learn how to socialize.

When two children pretend to fight, one usually has the upper hand. For example, you may see one of your children pinning their sibling down and tickling them.

This power dynamic is a normal part of rough-and-tumble play. But it also gives you an opportunity to teach your children about consent.

Research shows that you can start teaching kids about bodies and body boundaries as early as preschool. Learning to set and respect boundaries early can help kids with consent later in life.

Pretending to fight with your children can be healthy. Studies show that children have more fun playing if they see their parents getting involved.

Joining your children in play fighting can also be a chance to help more aggressive children learn to play safely. Because you naturally have the upper hand over your child, you can set an example for how they can play with more timid friends or siblings.

One study showed that rough-and-tumble play between fathers and their children could help children learn to regulate their emotions.

This study also suggested that dads who spend a lot of time play-fighting with their children raise kids who are more comfortable in social settings. The more they roughhoused with their dads, the better their relationships with peers seemed to be.

Although play fighting is separate from real fighting, it can quickly turn into a real fight. This happens most often when one child accidentally hurts another.

In a typical relationship, play fighting turns into real fighting only part of the time. However, if it happens often or if children are getting hurt, it may be time to step in and help your children learn to enjoy rough-and-tumble play more safely.

Play fighting between your children can also be a problem if it’s causing you stress. It’s all right to set limits on how and where they roughhouse. For example, your family rules may include:

  • No rough-housing after someone says “Stop!”
  • No rough-housing in the house or in certain parts of the house
  • No rough-housing on furniture
  • No rough-housing while you’re on the phone
  • No rough-housing during bedtime

Setting boundaries is just one more way you can model consent for your children.