“Destructive” Play

“My child won’t play without being destructive. He is extremely smart, but he bounces off the walls and is destructive. We try redirecting him. We try positive reinforcement. We try using incentives. We use time-outs. We’ve tried everything,” a parent asked me recently.

First off — this is a great example of how using precision in language really changes the conversation that we’re having (something that I talked about here yesterday). Parents, teachers, and other adults often tell me things like this, with a sweeping broad word like “destructive” that really only tells me about what the adult thinks about what they’re seeing—not any facts about what they’re actually seeing.

My kid is very “destructive”, too.

My kid loves to take stuff apart.

My kid needs tons of deep body input like crashing and rolling around and knocking things over.

My kid plays intensely with the same thing for long periods of time, which means that he’ll often start using it in new and creative ways, which means that the object might end up getting taken apart or broken apart.

My kid plays outside for hours and hours and hours a week, especially in the warmer months…it sure gets harder in the dark and cold and wet, but we do our best still then too. (If you take away the walls, there’s no walls to bounce off of 😉)

My kid needs to roughhouse intensely and seems to have a bottomless well for how much roughhousing he wants!

When my kid is upset about something, it often comes out through his body. Things get broken in ways that look intentional, and things also get broken in ways that don’t look intentional.

All of these are examples of what someone might mean when they’re saying “destructive”.

All of these are a launching place for figuring out how to meet the needs that the child is showing you that they have.

Does he need to take things apart? Does he need to throw things? Does he need to jump on top of things? Does he need to wrestle with things? All of these things are more descriptive and give you more information about how to help redirect him.

I get a lot of things from a local “buy nothing” group for free, and get a lot more things from thrift stores, and let him break his toys apart through intense and focused play if that’s what he wants to do.

I set out cardboard boxes and pillow piles and blanket forts and we crash through them, take them apart, or punch the box apart from the inside out.

We rip up paper and cardboard. We play with open-ended toys that can be put together and taken apart a zillion ways. We roughhouse daily and I find ways to meet his roughhousing need that also respect my own body’s feeling touched-out much much sooner, like games where I throw heavy pillows on him from a distance, or tangle him up in blankets and let him flop around.

He plays in crawling/bear crawling position — on all fours, either hands and knees or hands and feet — pushing around a dump truck and crashing it into walls, or pushing around a laundry basket, or pretending to be a cat, and I know that this gives heavy sensory input to his body through all of his limbs. I hold his feet and he walks on his hands, and I know that this gives him heavy sensory input and important inner ear input because his head is upside down.

I know that giving him bursts of heavy work or high-energy play or roughhousing, in 15ish minute bursts, is often enough to meet his need and settle his brain for the next little while. I can tell myself this when I feel too exhausted to help meet his needs some other way. I can put on music to help myself time 15 minutes — I know it’s about 4-5 high-energy songs. Sometimes the songs themselves are the diversion and we just have a dance party.

It’s pretty tough for children to be incentivized by outside incentives when the need in their own body is stronger. It’s pretty tough for them to be hurt badly enough by time-out for their fear response to override the need in their own body, and obviously it’s not what we want to cause in them as parents (although that’s all time-out can really do).

Believe me, I personally understand how tough it is — especially in the dark, cold days of winter in the Northern Hemisphere — to help kids find ways to meet their intense needs they have in their bodies. But armed with this knowledge, I can remind myself that they’re not just destroying things for the sake of bothering me (or if they really and truly are, then that’s a sign that our relationship needs some repair) but rather in the pursuit of getting what they need. So if they’re getting what they need in a way that doesn’t work for the whole family, then I can help them find it somewhere else.