Episode 23 – Gage, Age 9: Getting pushed around at recess

Play fighting versus real fighting

Kids Ask Dr. Friendtastic
Kids Ask Dr. Friendtastic
Episode 23 – Gage, Age 9: Getting pushed around at recess


Think About It Questions

  • Have you ever had someone be physically too rough with you? What happened? How did you respond?
  • How do you feel about play fighting? Why do you think some kids like it? Why do you think some kids don’t like it?
  • Why is it important to be able to tell the difference between play fighting and real fighting? What do you think are the main differences?
  • Why might social control (using the group’s disapproval to rein someone in) be an effective way to deal with someone who is being too rough?
  • Why is it important to tell a trusted grown-up if someone bigger, stronger, tougher, or more socially powerful than you is picking on you? If you were being bullied, who would you tell?


Hi, there! I’m Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, also known as Dr. Friendtastic. I’m an author and clinical psychologist based in Princeton, NJ.

Here’s today’s question:

Hi, my name is Gage. I'm 9 years old and there was a boy at my school that used to bully me at recess all the time. He used to throw me around. He used to throw me all the way to the ground, and he was not being cool, and I would love to ask you how I should handle it. 

Hi, Gage. I’m so sorry to hear you went through that! Being thrown to the ground sounds very scary! And having it happen often? Oof. I bet you dreaded recess!

Sometimes, when kids get picked on, they blame themselves and think “If I were more this or less that, they wouldn’t pick on me!” I’m glad you understand that the other kid was not being cool. It’s not OK for anyone to treat you like that.

If this kid was bigger, stronger, tougher, or more socially powerful than you, then yes, you’re right: It was bullying. I wish someone had stepped in to keep you safe.

I want to talk more broadly about the difference between play fighting and real fighting.

Play fighting is sometimes called rough-and-tumble play, horseplay, or roughhousing.  It’s different than real fighting:

  • In play fights, kids are smiling and having a good time; in real fights, they’re angry or crying.
  • In play fights, kids take turns “attacking” and being “attacked” and they’re careful not to push or hit too hard. In real fights, the kids are trying to hurt each other.
  • Play fights often involve a whole group of kids, who like each other and continue to play together. Real fights usually involve only two kids, and they don’t want to be together afterward.

Some kids enjoy play fighting. Both boys and girls. They like the challenge of testing their strength and feeling powerful. They might also enjoy pretending to be superheroes or good guys and bad guys.

But about four out of every ten boys say they don’t like play fighting, and that’s absolutely fine. There are plenty of other ways to play together.

So, what can you do in your situation?

First, decide if what’s happening is play fighting or real fighting. If it’s play fighting, and the other kid is friendly, you can say, “This isn’t fun for me. Let’s do something else.” If the other kid doesn’t listen, walk away and play with someone else that day. You don’t have to cut that kid off permanently, but you do want to make it clear that you’re not sticking around if he insists on doing something you don’t like.

If it’s real fighting or bullying, it may help just to stand near friends or a teacher, so you’re less of a target.

If the other kid still hassles you, you may want to use what I call “social control.” That means using the group’s disapproval to reign someone in. In a calm but loud voice, you could say, “Get your hands off me!” or “Quit touching me!” Say it loud enough that everyone around you hears.

What do you think is likely to happen if you did that? Everyone will turn around and look at the other kid, and a teacher might also come running over. You didn’t tattle, but you did stand up for yourself.

If the fighting physically hurts or scares you and especially if it keeps happening, I think it’s important for you to talk to a grown-up you trust, maybe a parent, a teacher, or a guidance counselor, so they can help figure out how to keep you safe.

This has been Kids Ask Dr. Friendtastic. If you have a question about making and keeping friends that you’d like me to answer, go to DrFriendtastic.com, and click on the podcast tab to see how to submit your question.

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