Why Parents Should Think Twice About Tickling Their Children

Tickling your toddler often leads to shrieks of laughter, but there are some interesting theories against it. Is there any truth to the idea that tickling your toddler is harmful?

Although many parents have tickled a child at one point or another, just because a child laughs in response doesn’t mean that he or she is enjoying the tickling. Humans laugh when we are tickled as an automatic response, much like sneezing.

Tickling was even used as an actual form of torture throughout history, so as parents, it is important to understand that a child’s laughter doesn’t mean that he or she likes or wants to be tickled.

Aside from the fact that your toddler may not be able to communicate whether they enjoy being tickled, forcing a child to let you tickle them can also send a dangerous message about body autonomy.

The case against tickling is a strong one. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of the book “Playful Parenting,” said that tickling can overwhelm the nervous system and make children feel helpless and out of control.

The reflexive laughter can disguise discomfort, and even pain. It’s also a clear boundary breaker. When we tickle children without their buy-in, we’re teaching them that it’s OK to be touched and to touch others in ways they don’t like.

The worst kind of tickling is forceful and continuous, Dr. Cohen said. He adds:

“You’re not tuning in to the whole child. You’re not seeing them gasping for air. When the child is saying ‘Stop’ while laughing, the stop is ignored.”

It’s easy to see how tickling can become a form of bullying, or even abuse. It’s so common there’s a term for it: “tickle torture.”

When Caitlin Crawshaw was 8, she was playing with two brothers from her school in the basement of their grandparents’ house when they began to tickle her. The boys were about her age, the adults were upstairs. It was so forceful it hurt, she said. She remembers laughing when she wanted to cry, and feeling a sense of paralysis.

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