Study: Calm kids suddenly get aggressive to deal with ill-tempered playmates

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Every so often, parents will be surprised or even ashamed of a random aggressive act their child commits during a playdate or other social interaction. These seemingly out-of-the-blue occurrences are usually shrugged off as nothing more than an isolated incident. But a new study may have finally uncovered why so many kids tend to incorporate violence into their playtime at some point. Researchers from the University of Cambridge say that kids are much more likely to get violent during “make-believe” play if they are with a peer considered to be bad tempered.

The study’s authors believe these aggressive actions are a form of preparation just in case that hot-headed friend becomes legitimately hostile. This would certainly explain why many otherwise calm children randomly change demeanors.

How children deal with aggressive playmates

Over 100 children attending a school in China were analyzed for this study. The kids were grouped into pairs of two and asked to play with some toys with their partner. Children playing with an ill-tempered peer were 45 percent more likely to become aggressive during the course of pretend play.

Notably, a child’s own temperament didn’t seem to make much difference. Even the calmest of kids were still prone to aggression if paired with a ill-tempered partner. In many instances, kids appeared to introduce aggressive themes as a direct result of their partner being standoffish or irritable.

These results suggest that aggressive make-believe play may actually benefit kids from a social and emotional development perspective. The study finds more research is definitely necessary before that can be be confirmed, however.

“If children have a friend who is easily angered, and particularly if they haven’t coped well with that behavior, 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,” comments Dr. Zhen Rao in a university release.

The study also separates violent play from “non-aggressive, negative” make-believe play, such as pretending someone is sick or depressed.

Breaking down playtime

More specifically, 104 Chinese children between ages seven and 10 were studied. Each child could pick their own play partner, so many pairings were made up of friends. Play sessions lasted for 20 minutes and the toys provided were completely neutral, meaning there were no toy guns or other weapons. That being said, the kids still had free reign on their playtime and were allowed to play however they preferred.

Each participating child’s temperament was assessed by 10 of their peers. This is how researchers identified kids with short tempers.

After playtime was over, a complex statistical model called the Actor-Partner Interdependence Model was used to determine just how much a child’s temperament influenced their partner’s play decisions.

The average participating child spent about 20 percent of playtime on pretend play. Ten percent involved aggression and another eight percent involved non-aggressive, negative themes. Over half, though, showed at least one instance of aggressive play (53.5%).

Despite kids being paired with an ill tempered peer being 45 percent more likely to get aggressive, partner temperament didn’t seem to have any influence on the likelihood of engaging in non-aggressive, negative pretend play. Additionally, boys were found to be over six times more likely to initiate aggressive play than girls.

Does this behavior actually help children develop?

In conclusion, the study’s authors stress that their theory is just one possible explanation for these findings.

“Our study highlights the importance of taking into account a social partner’s emotional expression when understanding aggressive pretend play,” Dr. Rao concludes. “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 study is published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.

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