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9/10/17blog post

are martial arts bad for kids?

I’m a big advocate of regular physical activity for children. The impact is staggering, with years of research verifying the positive effects on kids’ mental and physical health. We’d call it a miracle drug if the benefits could be captured in a 10-mg tablet taken twice a day. For kids with depression or so-called ADHD, the effects are particularly beneficial.

Youth sports are the way many kids get exercise at an early age. However, by adolescence talent trumps desire, leaving many youngsters wanting to play but unable to do so because of a lack of skill. In such situations, I’ve recommended that kids and parents consider dance, yoga, and even martial arts.

My latter suggestion is typically met with enthusiasm by kids and skepticism by parents. Children, particularly aggressive youth, view martial arts as an opportunity to learn how to become better fighters. Parents are concerned that such programs will promote the type of mindless violence that they are trying to eliminate.

Well-respected martial arts programs promote self-discipline, emotional stability, and respect, along with the enhancement of various physical skills. There has been lots of research that document the positive impact of martial arts programs on kids’ psychological health. For many kids, these programs are a way to learn the self-control skills that they cannot acquire in a therapist’s office.

Even so, while this might be true for some kids, parents are concerned that it doesn’t intuitively make sense to recommend that aggressive kids learn to become more skillful fighters.

Recently published research by Anna Harwood and her colleagues in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior has now answered that concern. They analyzed twelve studies involving 507 kids, studying the impact of marital arts on aggressive and violent behavior. In nine of the twelve studies, martial arts had a positive effect and no impact in the other three studies.

These results make sense because good martial arts programs focus as much on positive psychology as they do on self-defense and fighting techniques.  Instructors expect high standards of behavior during the class, and may even require that kids bring in their reports cards for review. They focus on recognizing and controlling your emotional state and teaching alternatives to hurting others as a way to relieve your momentary frustration.

Good martial arts instructors teach in their studios many of the same skills I do in my office. However, be as careful in selecting the right teacher as you would be in picking a psychologist. Observe several classes, ask about how misbehavior is managed, and talk with other parents. Involve your child in that decision, and monitor his progress.