Q & A: Aggressive Play


I have a 3 year old, 17 month old and number 3 is due in 3 months…. My 3 year old tends to have outbursts and act like a dinosaur and attack his cousins and sister… He’s always roaring like a dinosaur.. We’ve taken all dinosaurs away and he still keeps going. He head butts his cousins and sister too like a dinosaur would! Is this normal?


Whoa!! Busy household!! That must be tough at times?

Children under 3 have negligible amounts of impulse control and it (very) slowly develops as they grow older. They used to say it’s relatively mature around age 16 but now they’re saying early 20’s. In any case, we still have to apply it (haha!)! So he will only just be developing that.

It sounds like he’s showing you when he’s feeling “off-track” with the more aggressive dinosaur stuff? So when they do that they are asking you to “Set A Limit” so you do that by coming in close, making warm eye contact and just gently shaking your head and saying “uh-uh” or something like that. Words aren’t necessary. Just a gentle way of saying “I won’t allow you to do that”. That should help him move into releasing whatever it is he wants to offload (kids use those moments to say “I need to let out some big feelings”) and it’s not necessary to worry what he’s offloading unless he mentions it.

All you do is allow the tears, tantrum, trembling or sweating (all those are ways that children offload their fears/hurts/upsets) whilst keeping warm eye contact and reassuring that his big feelings are OK and better out than in with your relaxed demeanour, warm eye contact and calming tone when you empathise with stuff like “I know it’s hard..” or “You really wanted to keep playing..”. Again, not too many words. You’re just there to allow those feelings to pour out and empty his “emotional backpack”.

A full emotional backpack is at the root of most aggressive behaviours so the more you welcome and empathically listen to big feelings, the less aggression you’ll see.

If you’ve had it to the gills with the dinosaurs, you could schedule intensive dinosaur time (say what?) but put a timer on it. I’m assuming it’s just the aggressive dinosaur that’s tough to deal with? Regular one-on-one roughhousing creates amazing bonding hormones and I recommend a minimum of 10 minutes Special Time a few days a week if you can, more on weekends. I often tack 5 mins roughhousing on the end of that. You can let him be the rough dinosaur with you holding a pillow for the head-butting. Before you start you stipulate that this is “rough time” but we don’t do it outside of this time. When he does you could offer some emergency rough time if you feel his backpack is OK but otherwise I would stick to Setting The Limit and getting a good release.

Imaginative play is really wonderful for child development, so I would only discourage the rough version, which he is probably just using as a “pre-text” or warning signal, anyway! I would also get the dinosaurs back out as he’s obviously quite passionate and I’m fairly sure paleontologists make a lot of money ?

Playful Parenting by Larry Cohen is a really great book for helping your kids through play… you’re obviously not in a position to read but I would get Dad onto it!

You can also spend time learning about different dinosaurs and developing on what sort of personality they might have so you can refer back them. I know nothing about dinosaurs but as an example – “Oh, it’s T-Rex but (little sister) is in more of a gentle Brontosaurus mood.. show her your Brontosaurus!”. I would experiment outside of the moment with those different types of dinosaurs and demeanours as in the moment he is unlikely to be in his “thinking brain”.

This is a good Hand In Hand Parenting article too.

Wishing you well with your little dinosaur,
Aunty Ask xx