Q: My 5-year-old son has an intense need to roughhouse. His pre-K program allowed some body play (with supervision), but now he’s in a structured kindergarten with a hands-off policy. How do we help him get the physical playing he needs while also learning important boundaries? (P.S. He is an only child.)
A: When there’s an intense need for physicality, I always ask if the child’s brain is reading sensory information in a neurotypical way. It’s normal to roughhouse, but if a child isn’t feeling sensations, he requires intense sensations to make spatial sense of the world. So, think about your son and decide if you need to look into sensory-processing issues.
People love to wrongly pin things on the only child. Still, if a child tackles his brother five times, the brother is going to fight back, which is a natural consequence. If your son hasn’t met the wall of futility — a firm “no” is like a sibling tackle — he may be used to having his physicality accommodated.
Now, the new school: Be in close communication with the teacher, letting her or him know your son’s a good guy and you’re working on this issue. Together, explore how your son can move in class and on the playground.
After school, he must expend energy. He might need tae kwon do or sports we aren’t always fans of, such as football or boxing. Some parents set up the safest trampoline possible for their energetic angels.
Right now, your child is having new boundaries placed upon him, and this feels bad to him. Convey a strong message: This new school is a hard, big change, but we can do this together. Give him hope and leadership. Say, “Mommy is talking to your teacher and your teacher loves you.”
Your son may or may not understand this brand-new logic, but talk about it. Do we wrestle in airports or while someone is driving a car? Maybe we don’t roughhouse because there are more pencils and scissors in kindergarten.
Language is a small way of turning a corner in the mind. Discuss values: “In our family we love to wrestle and be very physical, but we also respect other people’s space and bodies.” He won’t fully understand this, but that’s OK, just keep saying it.
There’s a fine line to walk as your son learns to adapt to no-wrestling kindergarten and yet not feel bad about himself. Your son’s deep physical impulses are out of his control, and the burden of change for this behavior lies solely on your shoulders. Keep making sure your son feels safe, loved and happy as he gets used to his new classroom.