Tickle Me Not

November 1st, 2011 by Dionna | 10 Comments
Posted in natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity, Use Nurturing Touch

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At first glance, tickle games appear to be times of fun and joy.1 When you tickle a child, the child laughs. What’s not fun about that? But think about the typical tickling game:

1) It is initiated by the adult: tickle-fests are normally started by the parent. The child may run screaming and laughing away from the chasing, tickling adult. At the beginning, it probably looks like a fun game.

2) It is controlled by the adult: the child is rendered helpless under the adult’s tickling fingers. The child has less strength, less physical prowess, less control. The game stops not when the child wants it to, but when the adult decides to.

3) The child is left feeling vulnerable: sustained laughter and adrenaline from the “fight or flight” feeling brought on by the tickling leaves the child out of breath, shrieking, pulling away, or screaming “no!” or “stop!” In some instances, the child even cries or wets herself, adding to the humiliation she feels at being completely dominated and out of control. The uncontrollable laughter heard in a tickle game is usually not a free reflection of joy; it is a forced physical response. It stems from panic and anxiety.

Normal tickling – the type where a child feels out of control of the “game” – teaches a child two things. It teaches her to succumb to the violation of her own body by someone more powerful, and it teaches her that it is acceptable (even fun!) to violate the person of another.

Neither of those lessons are appropriate.

Tickle Games that Empower

Tickling does not have to cause shame and a sense of powerlessness. Instead of being in control of tickle games, hand the control to your child. Here are some ideas to empower your child while connecting with a fun, physical game.

1) Ask First: give your child the power to say no to a game of tickles. We have always asked our son before tickling him – many times he says no, but the times he says yes it’s always a fun time.

2) Give the Child an Easy Way to Opt Out: if your child agrees to the tickle fest, come up with a fun way for her to end it. For example, tell her that rolling away from you means “stop!”

3) Let Your Child Control the Tickle Time: instead of the potentially scary specter of a very large adult coming at the child with big tickling hands, let the child come to you. Here are a couple of ideas to let your child be in charge of tickle time:

  • Tickle Tunnel: Stand with your legs wide apart. Your child will choose when (and how fast) to run under your legs, and you can lightly tickle him as he goes by.
  • Tickle Tree: Your arms are the branches with tickling leaves, your child can come dance around you, try to climb you, or even try to chop you down – but you can’t move anything except your fingers.

Our goal in being playful with our children should not be to get an easy laugh or to dominate the situation, it should be to make a connection and to have everyone come away feeling good about the interaction. Tickling can be fun, we just have to remember what it’s like to be in our child’s more vulnerable position.

Do you have any suggestions for safe tickling games?

Photo credit: pixelstar


This post was originally published on API Speaks.

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  1. For more on tickling, its effects, and some alternatives, check out Aldort’s Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves at 213-15 and Lawrence Cohen’s Playful Parenting.

10 Responses to:
"Tickle Me Not"

  1. Melissa   VibrantWanderer

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve been looking for a good resource to share with my husband on the subject, and this is it. I have awful memories of being tickled when I absolutely did not want to be as a child. Saying “no” didn’t work, because I was laughing so it seemed obvious that I was having fun – not so. It’s so important to let children have control of their own bodies during tickling games, and whenever possible, really.

  2. I hated it when my brother tickled me as a kid. I was even a preteen then, but he was 7 years older. He’d always argue against my “no” that I was laughing and smiling, so I must be enjoying it. They are not fond memories for me.

    That said, when we tickle Sasha: We usually warn her first either with some goofy sounds or just saying we’re going to do it. We also raise our hand a good distance from her, bringing it in slowly. She knows how to say and sign no and if she says no – there is no tickling. Her body autonomy is very important to me.

    Once our tickle games do start, we don’t constantly tickle. She is never left out of breath or unable to say “No.” We pause and raise our hands with the “warning” sounds or words over and over again.

    I think another major key that people can use, though, is letting your child tickle you back. Yes, you might have to fake a giggle because tiny little hands aren’t always very good at tickling, but it definitely shows that… I guess it shows that it isn’t a one-way street. It isn’t that the stronger person gets to do all the tickling. The part we do have trouble with is getting HER to stop when we don’t feel up to the game. Respecting OUR body autonomy. She’ll learn, though… with time, patience, and practice.

  3. I also think it is important to teach *siblings* to respect each other in this way. I don’t think my brother had any majorly ill will toward me, he just thought it was fun and probably enjoyed the rush of power, too. Bleh.

    I’ve had to remind my own teenage daughter that when Sasha says no, that means NO. I use her own body autonomy as an example and remind her that anytime SHE says no – it needs to mean NO. No one should do anything to her that she does not want.

  4. Christy @ Adventures in Mommyhood   MommyOutnumber

    Great post! I just had a conversation about this a few weeks ago with a friend. I was tickling my 2 year old, who initiated it, and we discussed tickling and wondering if babies/kids really liked it or not. It is so hard to tell because they appear to be laughing. I never just tickle my kids, I always let them initiate and I never hold them down. If they pull away I stop. My kids usually play by either running to me to tickle them and running away when they have had enough, only to run back again when they are ready or they do the same thing by rolling towards me and away over and over again. Even small babies can give cues like this. They can roll towards you and grunt, even thrust their bellies at you when they want the tickles and then pull back when it’s enough.
    I don’t think people give this as much thought as they should. My husband has told me stories about his older brother holding him down and tickling him until he wet his pants and how much he hated it. I can remember similar experiences as a child of people holding me down and tickling me no matter how hard I screamed at them to stop. It sounds silly at first to say but tickling can be a negative experience.

  5. teresa   momgrooves

    I love this! I’ve heard the “tickle is torture” stuff and it made sense to me, but I still have wondered as my daughter really enjoys a good tickle now and then…
    I appreciate that you have the “good” tickles list. That really makes sense.
    I was a victim of tickle abuse as a child. Or rather, was so sensitive that I never got over that feeling of overwhelm. Who knows how much of my therapy money was spent on that!
    Great post.

  6. Gaby @ Tmuffin   tmuffindotcom

    I know some people would just be like, “You’re being dramatic… it’s just tickling.” But this is something people don’t often think about. I HATE being tickled. I bruise easily, and tickling hurts. Big T thinks it is funny to tickle me and I hate hate hate it but I can’t talk when I’m laughing. He tickles Baby T a lot, but Baby T is really good at saying “Stop it” when he doesn’t like it. I’m going to show Big T this article so he can understand the whole domination/lack of control thing and how awful it can be.

  7. Amy   Peace4Parents

    I don’t have any additional suggestions right now, I just love you for broaching such subjects so thoughtfully. :)

  8. Sara

    My first reaction while reading this was that you were, someone else said, being dramatic. After all, I am one who was tickle-tortured as a child, I know the laughter is a forced response and not a sign of joy, and I was tickled to the point of wetting myself numerous times, as well as to the point of pain. And yet I don’t feel particularly traumatized by any of this. Kids do a lot of things to each other (my older brother was usually the culprit) that the other person doesn’t like and may even remember well into adulthood, that doesn’t make it traumatic.

    HOWEVER, I quickly realized the fallacy in my thinking, and that is that not all kids are the same. Some are far more resilient than others and can take many life stresses in stride. For one, traumatic events may hardly phase them, while another child in the same situation may become withdrawn and suffer major anxiety. So I thank you for this post. The saying “the plural of anecdote is not evidence” is one of my favorites, and it applies here also. I hope others who are inclined to not take the domination and loss of control associated with tickling to take a step back and really think about it in the eyes of someone who may have a completely different temperament than yourself.

  9. Fran   BabiesOnline

    Thanks for this post, Dionna. I’ve always told my husband not to tickle the kids, that I never wanted them to feel the way I did as a kid, helpless and powerless by being tickled. He insisted they liked it, that they told him to tickle them…that is until the time our daughter went from laughing to screaming and crying within seconds. That’s when he saw my point too and he’s been much more careful to keep it playful and let the kids say when to stop.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I’m so glad that your husband is listening for their cues now Fran! I remember feeling exactly like you did, so I’m always very careful with Kieran. I felt completely awful recently when we were tickling – he was fine with it, but he hadn’t used the restroom in *hours* and so, guess what – he peed his pants. I apologized profusely, it brought back such bad memories for me. But he was over it easily – it hadn’t been because I was “over”-tickling, I don’t think I did more than 10 or 15 seconds (and not all at once, just in little spurts) – he was just giggling with a full bladder. Poor kiddo!

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