Most people don't think twice about tickling kids, because the gales of giggles that result from a tickling session must mean the kiddo is having fun, right? It's basically a playful rite of passage. Not everyone is so convinced that tickling is harmless, though. Knowing how tickling your kids affects them later in life can help you decide how to approach this activity in your home. This isn't to say tickling must be banned from your home at once, only that it's helpful to think about the activity and how it affects your family.
In general, there is concern that tickling your kid, especially against their wishes, can send some warped messages about consent and bodily autonomy. I know, I know: It's only tickling. But lessons about personal space start early, and forcing your kid to be tickled against their will can be confusing. "[An] important way to empower your child is to teach them that their body belongs to them,” said psychotherapist Carol Horton in The Washington Post. This means respecting their desire to not be touched or even tickled. Yes, getting consent to tickle a kid may feel weird, but it's only fair. Kids have the right to decide what they consider what their personal boundaries are and when any kind of touching feels playful or not.
It may feel weird to give a silly activity so much thought, but tickling has been the subject of study for several decades now. As it turns out, this form of play is surprisingly complex. Basically, although it produces smiles and laughter, plenty of people would not consider tickling any fun. "Despite agreeing to participate in a tickle study and despite smiling and laughing, most reported that they did not find the experience at all positive (e.g. one subject referred to being tickled as "torture" although she laughed)," as researchers for one 1997 study in Cognition and Emotion noted. Chances are, you know a few people who legit hate being tickled, and for whom that kind of irritating touch is pretty much some sort of torture.
But if you're laughing, then it's fun, right? Well, as the Cognition and Emotion study further revealed, the laughter produced from tickling may be very different from the laughter produced by watching a funny movie. The giggles from tickles are perhaps more like nervous laughter, an uncomfortable response.
If adults who willingly participated in a study about it still vehemently hate being tickled, then how do children respond to it? On one hand, it is a bonding activity. "If one wants to become friends with a young child, there is no easier way to negotiate the social terrain than by gently escalating tickle games," said neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp in Current Directions in Psychological Science. I mean, wasn't just about everyone tickled as a child? It's just a thing you do.
But on the other hand, tickling can have a dark side. It's sickening to think about, but sexual predators use tickling as a grooming tactic. As explained by a 2017 piece in the Deviant Behavior journal, "the child molester may first give the child hugs or pats on the back, and then gradually escalate to wrestling, tickling, or back massages and the eventual sexual contact." Tickling can be a way of pushing boundaries for predatory people.
OK, now this is in no way saying that tickling your kid during a bit of roughhouse play is going to set them up for warped personal boundaries later on in life. After all, some kids enjoy being tickled, and that's fine. If your kid's into being tickled, go for it. But if you kid asks you to stop tickling, then stop. It's all about respecting appropriate boundaries, and that's important at any age.
Plus, it stands to reason that the lessons a kid learns about consent and boundaries as a kid will carry over into the adult years. In fact, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs recommends adults respect children's consent from a young age in everyday situations. This means not forcing your kid to embrace relatives and, yes, to cease tickling when the kid says enough is enough. Although it may seem like a small thing, setting your kid up for healthy boundaries now will only help them in acknowledging and voicing what they are and are not comfortable with now, and as they grow into the adult years.
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