Tickle Me Not

by Dionna on April 30, 2010

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tickleAt first glance, tickle games appear to be times of fun and joy. 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 – he often says no, but when he does say yes we always have fun.

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

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.

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Dionna (20 Posts)

Dionna writes at Code Name: Mama, where she shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting and life with a toddler/preschooler.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon December 26, 2013 at 10:02 pm

My mom used to hold me down arms crossed above me head and “tickle” me until I couldn’t breathe, usually puking. I often begged to stop before it started but it didn’t matter. It went on for years, until I kicked her really hard in trying to get away. She wonders why I don’t like to hug her.


Anon December 26, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Tickling like anything beyond when someone says “no” is torture. It was a common form of Chinese and Greek torture, left no marks.


Annette July 4, 2014 at 7:07 am

I kept googling and wondering if what I experienced as a young pre-teen was abusive and I found this “tickle” site. I know that my father crossed boundaries with me. He used to pin me down on the floor and tickle me until I could not breath. I hated it and screamed for him to stop, but he would not. He did not stop there though, usually he would also pull at my nipples! To this day I hate to be ticked and have battled whoever tried to tickle me later in life. I do not remember when this started, but do know that I was a pre-teen when it was occurring. I wondered, but never asked why my mother did not say anything and of course, I was powerless to make this stop on my own.

He was also verbally and emotionally abusive to all of us, and physically abusive to my younger brother at a certain point in his life. He is also a very controlling person. More so in my adult years though than when I was living at home, which is odd to me.

I am now 56 and my father will be 78 this year. I have tried to put the past behind me since I’ve been on my own and have also tried to maintain some kind of a relationship with him. Since I’ve been living on my own I have ALWAYS spoken up and protected myself. Of course, he (and some of my siblings) does/do not like that and he/they finds/find fault in what I say…even now! It is not direct, but usually about the particular situation, or descriptive about the way I’m dealing with something or doing something.

He (and they) has and continues to cross boundaries and for some strange reason I feel he still does not view me as an adult. My family was terribly dysfunctional. Both of my parents were largely self-centered and neither knew how to develop a healthy emotionally connected relationship with their children and both “practiced” conditional love. He still does.

I was a very quite & shy child and my mother perceived me as “weak” (she told me that about 5 years ago!!!) and she picked on me. Quite frankly, I’m sick and tired of this toxic relationship with my father! I have been working for almost 40 years and have a very good job. This is the ironic part…I do research on different projects and write for the CO of a big company, and manage over 4 million in state and federal funding, but in my father’s eyes…it is as if I would never measure up, and further, don’t have good judgment!

I do not need his approval and do not seek it and am very independent due to the way I was raised. I really think that gets his ire more than anything!


Amber August 3, 2014 at 3:11 am

My kids like being tickled too! Great information!


Joe in Cleveland May 11, 2015 at 8:53 pm

I was tickled til I wet my pants laughing once by my dad wen I was 5 or 6 now I love idea of doing it to a adult woman for foreplay it caused me trauma and arousal same time and he made me feel girlish


Lorrine Harbick September 4, 2015 at 11:43 pm

I absolutely consent to a few focuses that you have talked about in this post. Much appreciated!


Lucky Joestar September 16, 2015 at 9:24 pm

I’m 47 now, but I had a nightmare last night in which I was a kid again being tickled, and I felt the violation and anger all over again. Honestly, I don’t think you should tickle your kids at all. They may be laughing, but it’s solipsistic to think they’re enjoying it. After all, third world governments wouldn’t use it in rough interrogations if it was so pleasurable. The message I got from being tickled when I was a kid was “I don’t care about your feelings one bit. You’re not my son. You’re my toy to do with as I please.” Children learn by example and not by directive, so as a parent, you have a responsibility to set a good example with your own behavior and demonstrate how they should conduct themselves in society by keeping your own nose to the grindstone around them.


Daryl January 17, 2016 at 4:53 pm

Thank you for a concise explanation! I’m carefule to ask my daughter first and stop every second or so to check “more? All done?” We use sign language with her so she can easily express her choice.


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