Your Child’s Play Behavior – When Should You Be Concerned?
As a parent, it’s normal to observe your child’s playtime behavior and dialogue. You may wonder at times if what you see and hear is normal, or cause for concern. If your little girl always pulls the heads off her dolls, or is frequently aggressive with her playmates, should you be rushing to the phone to call the nearest child psychologist? Or if your little boy uses only black in his drawings, is he depressed and in need of therapy?
The answer is that it often depends on several factors. Ultimately, you know your child better than anyone else. If your gut is telling you that something isn’t right, then don’t ignore it. This is especially true if you observe an abrupt change in your child’s playtime behavior, or if a worrisome behavior occurs frequently – as opposed to only once in a while, or for just a short period of time.
Keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for children to use play as a way to act out destructive or aggressive emotions. As long as everyone involved is safe and it remains “pretend” only, this is generally acceptable. If it gets out of control, or they are no longer pretending, then intervention is necessary.
When to be concerned
Although every child is different, there are some things to watch for that can be warning signs of a serious problem. If your child does any of the following – especially on a regular basis – it could be a potential red flag:
- Doesn’t engage with the other children, and doesn’t make eye contact with them, but may engage in similar activity (“parallel play”)
- Has difficulty or gets frustrated when he has to wait his turn or stand in line
- Play activities lack imagination and spontaneity
- Shows little or no interest in playing with other children
- Has no empathy or regard for the feelings of other children
- Has to have everything her way
- Intentionally hurts or is cruel to other children (or animals) and exhibits no remorse (and / or lies about what happened)
- Quickly goes from one toy to the next, rather than focusing on one particular toy or activity for a while
- Mimics adult sexual behavior in his play
In drawings or art: (a medium in which children often reveal their deepest feelings and thoughts)
- Draws pictures with sexual themes or details
- Draws herself with no hands or no mouth
- Lack of color; uses a lot of black or red
- People or objects are unusually small
- Sad themes or lifelessness (e.g. trees without leaves, sad face on the sun or moon)
- Morbid or violent themes (death, blood, guns, jagged teeth, monsters)
- Shades over his picture
- Disconnected, wavy, or incomplete lines
The above lists are far from comprehensive, but they do contain many common indicators of deeper problems in children. If you are concerned about your child’s playtime behavior, or themes that are showing up in his or her artwork, it is certainly worth consulting with a child psychiatrist or psychologist, or other child specialist. If there is a problem, the sooner it is identified and treated, the better.