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My kid rips off their dolls’ heads. Should I be worried?

Children don’t always play nice with toys. Here’s what you need to know.

A toddler carefully holds a swaddled baby doll

 

Growing up, you probably knew another kid who threw their doll around, drew on its face, and sliced off its hair.

As a child, most peers brush off this type of play and move on to the next game. When you’re an adult, this same behavior can seem disturbing. Too often, childhood is seen as a purely innocent state of being. What does it mean when a kid adds violence to their world of pretend?

Violent play is seen across genders, including girls. It has long been an area of interest for caretakers and researchers alike.

If you see your kid playing in a violent way, it’s normal to be concerned. It’s also hard to know what to do. Should you step in? Should you ignore it? Many caretakers and parents can feel like they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Most of the time, aggressive play is a normal part of childhood development.2 Some even argue it has benefits.3 However, there are habits to watch out for that might mean your child needs a little more support. For children, playtime isn’t just a way to have fun. It’s an essential learning tool. With a fresh perspective, it’s possible to create a deeper bond with your kid while learning more about why and how they play.

Why do kids do this?

It’s the question of the century—literally. For decades, developmental psychologists have researched and scrutinized the nature of aggressive play. There are multiple reasons why a child chooses to act a certain way.4 No two kids are alike, so why should the reasoning behind their actions be the same? Typically, researchers believe aggressive play can have roots in:

  • Engineering: Some kids may just want to see how a toy’s internal mechanisms work.
  • Observing: They could be modeling something they see on television or in real life.
  • Channeling: They could be acting out frustration in a “safer” scenario where no people get hurt.
  • Something else: Boredom, the urge to impress or intimidate playmates, or other reasons can make violent play appealing.

Aggressive play isn’t new. It’s a common thing seen in children across cultures and experiences. Most of the time, playing is a way for young minds to learn and process new information. This a chance for you to sit down with your child and explore why and how they like to play. Coming from a place of curiosity, not judgment, can help you learn more about what is going on in your child’s life.

Should I be worried?

Although aggressive doll play is normal, there are times when it can require more attention and observation. Is the play:

  • Specific: Is the doll acting as a stand-in for someone in their life, including themselves?
  • Sexual: Is the play modeling sexual behavior or activities?
  • Escalating: Is the play becoming increasingly more violent?
  • Extending: Is the play starting to extend beyond the imaginary world and become dangerous to others?

Seeing these behaviors can, but not always, be signs of abuse, trauma, bullying, or other points of concern. Since playing is learning, violently interacting with dolls can be a way for a child to understand what happened to them. It is a safe context where they can process the world while remaining in control.

Guessing and Googling only get us so far. If you have questions or concerns, do not hesitate to bring them up with your child’s pediatrician. If they already have a therapist or a behavioral health practitioner, talk to them as well.

What do I do?

It can be tempting to tell your kid bluntly to stop playing aggressively. But nipping it in the bud might not be an ideal solution. You could miss an opportunity to learn more about their life.

Try playing with your child and allow them to choose what you both do. If playtime starts to turn violent, ask them why. Not from a place of judgment, but from a place of curiosity. Kids tend to be open books. If you try redirecting to a less violent type of play, see how they respond. If they protest or become more violent, it might make sense to end the session there and move on to something else. This interaction can become useful information. Knowing more about your child’s play choices can be helpful when talking to a specialist about their behavior.4

Finding a way to address aggressive play productively can feel like you’re walking into uncharted waters. Some parents can be worried that they might discover something awful has happened. However, if your child is experiencing a stressful time, they need your help now. If you have questions or worries, check in with your family pediatrician.

Big steps forward

Aggressive play can be concerning, but you don’t have to sound the alarm immediately. Approaching the subject from a place of understanding, not reactivity or frustration, can help you learn more about your child and bond with them along the way.

Children are living in a complicated world these days. That’s why teaching empathy is so important. Our actions, not just our words, matter more than ever.5 How you approach their aggressive play has the potential to teach them a lot. What you teach in this situation is up to you.

Whenever you have questions, concerns, or doubts, don’t hesitate to lean on your own support network. That includes your family pediatrician. When it comes to parenting, knowledge is power.

Sources

  1. Journal of General Psychology, 2020.
  2. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2020.
  3. Popular Science, 2020.
  4. Washington Post, 2019.
  5. Learn how “harsh” parenting impacts kids’ mental health here.
Any information MetroPlus Health Plan, Inc. (“MetroPlusHealth”) provides herein is for informational purposes only. It is not medical, legal, or professional advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your health care provider or other professional. If you have any concerns about your health, please contact your health care provider’s office. This information is not intended to imply that services or treatments described in the information are or are not covered benefits under your plan. Please refer to your Membership Agreement, benefit summary, or other plan documents for specific information about your benefits coverage. While we endeavor to ensure the information presented has been obtained from reliable source(s), MetroPlusHealth is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for the results obtained from the use of this information.
last updated: May 17, 2023

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