Children’s imaginary conflicts may be a rehearsal for how to deal with challenging friends

by Freya Lucas

October 09, 2020

Children who introduce violent themes into their pretend play, such as imaginary fighting or killing, as a way of  ‘rehearsing’ strategies to cope with friends who are challenging to deal with socially, researchers from the University of Cambridge have found

 

The aggressive play themes, which seem to happen whether or not children are personally easy to anger, were not linked to a child’s own temperament. Instead, researchers found, children often appeared to introduce these themes specifically in response to having an irritable playmate.

 

To arrive at their findings, researchers conducted an observational study of more than 100 children at a school in China, who were asked to play with toys in pairs, and who were then filmed playing for 20 minutes. The toys they were given were deliberately neutral in character (for example, there were no toy weapons), and the children could play however they wanted.

 

Separately, they also asked peers to rate the children’s tendency to become angry. Each of the 104 children in the study was rated by, on average, 10 others, who were asked to decide whether they were good at keeping their temper, easily angered, or ‘somewhere in between’.

 

The researchers then coded 10-minute samples of each pair in 120 five-second segments, earmarking instances of pretend play, aggressive themes, and non-aggressive negative themes.

 

On average, the children spent only about a fifth of their recorded session participating in pretend play, of which around 10 per cent involved aggressive themes and 8 per cent involved non-aggressive negative themes. Pretend play was observed in all children. 

 

More than half (53 per cent) showed at least one instance of aggressive pretend play, and 43 per cent of the children showed at least one instance of negative pretend play.

 

The children’s own ability to control their temper, as reported by their peers, did not significantly predict how much their pretend play involved aggressive themes. If they had a play partner who was considered quick to anger, however, they were 45 per cent more likely to create pretend situations that involved some sort of aggressive element. 

 

This percentage is to some extent shaped by how the data was segmented, but nonetheless indicates a greater likelihood that children will do this if they are playing with someone peers regard as easy to anger.

 

In certain cases, aggressive make-believe play can actually help children’s social and emotional development, by allowing them to experiment with different personas in order to deal with situations which are complex. 

 

The paper’s authors stress, however, that further research will be needed before they can provide definitive guidance for parents or practitioners.

 

“If children have a friend who is easily angered, and particularly if they haven’t coped well with that behaviour, it’s possible that they will look for ways to explore it through pretend play. This gives them a safe context in which to try out different ways of handling difficult situations next time they crop up in real life,” Dr Zhen Rao, lead researcher, said.

 

The children’s own ability to control their temper, as reported by their peers, did not significantly predict how much their pretend play involved aggressive themes. 

 

If they had a play partner who was considered quick to anger, however, they were 45 per cent more likely to create pretend situations that involved some sort of aggressive element. This percentage is to some extent shaped by how the data was segmented, but nonetheless indicates a greater likelihood that children will do this if they are playing with someone peers regard as easy to anger.

 

There was no evidence to suggest that either child’s temperament influenced the frequency of non-aggressive, negative pretend play. The researchers also found that boys were 6.11 times likelier to engage in aggressive pretend play than girls.

 

The theory that children may introduce these themes to rehearse ways of handling bad-tempered peers is only one possible explanation. For example, it may also represent an attempt to stop playmates becoming angry by giving them a pretend situation in which to ‘let off steam’, or simply to keep them playing by appealing to their nature.

 

“Our study highlights the importance of taking into account a social partner’s emotional expression when understanding aggressive pretend play,” Rao added. 

 

“Further research is clearly needed to help us better understand this in different social contexts. The possibility that children might be working out how to handle tricky situations through pretend play suggests that for some children, this could actually be a way of developing their social and emotional skills.”

 

The research is published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology and may be accessed here. 

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