Rethinking tickling

Sometimes it might seem like kids love being tickled … but do they really?

Did you know that the laughter triggered by tickling is different to other types of laughter? It’s actually part of an involuntary, automatic response.

In fact, studies show that tickling activates the part of the brain that anticipates pain, and triggers the instinct to fight or flee from danger.

So, why do we laugh when we are tickled then?

According to scientists, laughing might have been how our ancestors showed submission, to avoid being seriously hurt by a dominant aggressor! And this is a defence mechanism that we still have.

When we tickle kids, we might notice them squirming, pushing us away or even lashing out. These are all signs that they are uncomfortable and are trying to defend themselves.

But the child may be laughing so uncontrollably, that they can hardly say the words, “Stop!” or “No!”. And even if they do, adults often still think it’s all in fun, because of the laughter!

So well meaning adults often continue tickling, unaware that the child they’re tickling is uncomfortable. In retrospect, adults often report having felt overwhelmed or overpowered when tickled as a child.

Image courtesy of Freepik.

We now understand that, for our children’s safety, it’s important that they know that their body belongs only to them, and that they get to choose if, when, how and for how long their body is touched.

However, unless it’s done with the utmost awareness and restraint, encouraging communication and respecting children’s boundaries, tickling doesn’t communicate these important messages to kids.

And, unlike other kinds of laughter-inducing play, which decrease stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) and help kids feel more relaxed, tickling appears to increase stress hormones and, in my experience, can leave kids feeling more tense.

But tickling is a strategy that many adults have come to rely on in order to initiate valuable connection with the children in their lives. And, of course, kids also love receiving warm attention from the adults in their lives.

Fortunately, when it comes to enjoying connection with kids, there are plenty of options that don’t involve tickling. Here are just a few ideas, but there are many more:

👉 Kids typically have less choice and power in their lives than adults. So approaching kids in a way that turns the tables can be really effective!

👉 One great way is to let kids lead! Offer them your presence, listen and show interest in what they’re doing, then join in with enthusiasm!

👉 Or, to really get kids giggling, try acting like the slower, weaker, clumsier one in a game like chase/tag. The sillier we look, the better!

👉 And it can help to really try to notice what prompts our children to laugh freely and naturally, with joy and delight, and to do more of that!

These are some of the kinds of play that can be really fun, and help kids feel valued, special and truly connected to us, while simultaneously respecting their bodily autonomy and helping them to release stress and tension.

P.S. Sometimes kids might ask to be tickled, to meet their needs for emotional and physical closeness with adults, particularly if that has been the way adults have felt comfortable meeting those needs in the past. But it’s still possible they’d prefer one of these other kinds of play, or some other kind of touch (e.g. a hug, cuddle, back rub, foot massage, gentle “squashing”, or even wrestling), if given the choice.

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