Ten Tips for Tickling Without Trauma

An older brother (father, uncle) holds you down, fingers digging into your sides, your armpits, your feet. You giggle, body gasping for breath; you shriek “no!” and “stop!” and try to pull away — still laughing, enjoying-hating — but are prevented. It doesn’t stop until your antagonist is satisfied and releases you; perhaps the laughs are genuine, but still, a resentment stews inside, and long after the laughter fades and the grins recede, you remember the feelings: helpless, hopeless, powerless.

That may be what you picture — perhaps what you remember — when you think tickling. Or, even if your own memories are entirely benign and enjoyable, you’ve heard similar stories from friends who were not so lucky. Maybe it makes you want to give up this childhood “game” entirely, as inherently traumatizing, too risky to subject your child to.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Done well, tickling can be a subversion of the power imbalance between adult (or older sibling) and child, rather than reinforce it; it can encourage connection, autonomy, and assertiveness, rather than destroy these; it can be fun both in the moment and in the memory, no risk involved.

Here are ten tips to help make sure the tickling you do is empowering instead of traumatic:

1. Always get permission

As tempting as it is upon spying an exposed armpit or errant foot to reach in and wiggle your fingers against it, the most important tip and the only true rule of non-traumatic tickling is always get permission. Even when playing with pre-verbal babies, we can wiggle our fingers near them before touching them, and see how they react before (or instead of) actually tickling. But as soon as children start talking at all, we can ask “Do you want to play tickle fight?” or “May I tickle you?” And sometimes the answer will be no, or a yes will come with conditions, but being sure to always ask and only continuing if we get a yes is the key to teaching children about the importance of consent and their own right to determine what happens to their bodies.

2. Never use force

This is related to the prime rule of always getting permission, but it deserves its own entry anyway: never, ever hold down a child to tickle them. The only time your superior strength, if you have it, should come into play is in enforcing the safe-word and everyone’s safety: for the sake of the game itself, your child should feel at least as capable of getting their way as you are, and it should never, ever come down to pure muscle strength who can tickle or avoid being tickled more.

3. Don’t assume giggles mean consent

This assumption (or confusion) is the root of most trauma stemming from inappropriate tickling. We hear giggles, and think that means the giggler is having fun, but the truth is our bodies will sometimes laugh even when we are desperately unhappy and wish the experience would stop. By insisting on their verbal (willful) consent rather than assuming we “just know” what they enjoy, we teach them that the appearance of enjoyment is not sufficient justification for violation of another’s body.

4. Establish a safe-word

So if not by giggling, or a lack thereof, how do we know when to stop? We establish a safe-word. Most children starting around two or three years old can understand the concept given a simple explanation (“It’s a word that anyone can say that means everyone has to stop tickling right then.”); before then, treat any and all “nos” or even hints of attempts to move away as absolutes, and stop the game. Some children, starting at age three or four, might enjoy picking particularly “silly” words or phrases to use (favorites here have been Ponyo, Rumpelstiltskin, and applesauce); others prefer the simplicity of “stop!” If you’re concerned that your child doesn’t remember what the safe-word is, offer it to them: “Would you like to say the safe-word?” or “Do you remember what the safe-word is?” or simply say it yourself. But even if the word remains consistent from game to game and month to month, establish the word before starting each and every time. This refreshes it in everyone’s mind, and reinforces the ideas of consent and safety before every game.

5. Check in regularly

Even once you’ve established a safe-word, and are confident your child knows how and when to use (and respect) it, check in throughout a round to make sure no one is so overwhelmed or breathless that they want to stop but are unable to say so. And with preverbal children, checking in often is especially necessary (every few seconds is not too frequently!).

6. Respect each person’s boundaries

I despise my neck, armpits, and knees being tickled; some people have an aversion to their feet or their sides or their faces being touched: each of us has the right to say “these areas are out of bounds”. Children too can have areas they don’t want tickled, or don’t want tickled right then: let them set those boundaries each time, and let them change over the course of a game. Kids will often use fluctuating boundaries to experiment with their bodies, to test whether you will respect their wishes, to right any perceived power/strength/ability imbalance between you, and to practice their own limit-setting. So while it might be frustrating to hear “You can tickle my nose, my hands, and my right leg”, go with it. Not only can it be more fun (what a challenge!), you’re teaching them amazingly valuable lessons in boundary-setting, communication, and bodily autonomy.

7. Set aside, but respect, your own tickling traumas

Few of us make it to adulthood without some history of being tickled, and rarely has that tickling been entirely non-coercive. Some of us, like yours truly, are hyper-ticklish; others have lost the ability to be tickled entirely; some of us have buried panic-triggers when tickled in certain areas or in certain ways (being tickled on our knees, for instance, or when lying on our backs). To the best of your ability, recognize and set aside these histories and traumas for the sake of playing with your child; but simultaneously respect them. If you know some places send you into a panic, set boundaries that they be avoided; if you can’t be tickled, pretend you can; only play in times and ways that you can feel comfortable and relaxed; and if you are absolutely unable to engage in tickling games with comfort, don’t play them. Respecting our traumatic experiences without creating more for our children can be difficult, but is well worth it.

8. Do not use tickling as distraction

Tickling is, and should remain, its own game. This again goes back to the concept of getting permission: tickling should not be used for getting a child’s attention or distracting them from unpleasant feelings. Tickling should never be a surprise, though a spontaneous game can certainly be enjoyed (an out-of-the-blue request to play rarely goes amiss, unless completely off from the recipient’s mood at the time).

9. Play other games

Too often, tickling is the only physical game we play with children: some of us would request it, even when we didn’t really enjoy it, because we didn’t have any other ways to fulfill our desires for (physical) closeness and laughter and connection. We can avoid this by making sure our kids’ touch-cups get filled in other ways, through (safe) wrestling, boundary-assertion games, get-away games, and so on. Make tickling but one of the many full-body games you play with your child, and you’ll go a long way to making sure that when you do play tickling, it’s because it’s truly wanted and enjoyed. (Many of these tips can, and should, be applied to other physical play as well: the Boychick will often request we establish a safe-word before, or during, many of our other spontaneous physical games.)

10. Have fun

Tickling, done well, teaches many meaningful, life-long lessons about big concepts like bodily autonomy, rape prevention, trauma avoidance, self-esteem, safe sex, and meaningful consent — but above all, tickling should be fun. It’s a chance to play with your child, to connect and enjoy each other: all these tips are meant to make it fun for everyone, not to turn it into some kind of stressful test you can get “right” or “wrong”. So, relax, go forth, and have fun tickling!

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33 Responses to Ten Tips for Tickling Without Trauma

  1. Thank you for this. I have a long running conversation with my mother about tickling. She firmly believes that anything even resembling tickling is flat-out torture, and should never ever ever be engaged in. I’m quite positive this stems from the scenario you describe at the beginning (being pinned down, unwilling). I on the other hand see the value of a good all-in-fun tickling session, in fact both my boys love it and ask for it. But I ALWAYS respect their request for “stop” and never use it for anything but their enjoyment.

    Good job.

  2. I found it comforting to read this. I have horrible *horrible* memories of being pinned down and tickled until I was gasping for breath and crying. Then the person tickling me would get very angry and start shouting at me because I wasn’t enjoy his attempts to “play” with me. That was my Dad. I don’t think he knew how to “play” any other way. Just ‘pin ‘em down, make ‘em laugh’ and he felt satisfied he had done his playful father bit that day. But because I went through that I know what fear and pain it caused me and avoid it completely with my children. I never tickle more than a second or two and it’s always part of a larger game of rolling, tumbling, wrestling. So far my 3 year old enjoys it and allows me to tickle him when I ask. (even asks for it sometimes! so cute to hear in a polite English accent “Would you tickle my belly, please?”) I think there’s a very fine line between fun and torture when it comes to tickling. I think my husband must have horrible memories of it as well because he struggles to even talk about it. Tickling is evil as far as he’s concerned and it should never be done. :(

  3. I hated being pinned down by older, male relatives, tickled until it hurt, that I trained myself not to be ticklish anymore. I must have known that they’d never respect my “no” and that fighting it only made them want to tickle me more so not being ticklish was my ultimate “I win”. Though as I grew up I realized that all that ticklishness got concentrated in my feet!

    Great guidelines and great ways to discuss consent with children.

  4. Wow…thats been my regular comment on all the blogs of yours that I have read. But what the heck..its a wow again!

  5. Fantastic article! We have discussed this topic at length. Our oldest son is very sensitive to others touching him. He has to be the one to initiate any physical contact. I am the same way so it was easy for me to defend/support him. Tickling is not one of favourite ways to interact with little ones, considering there a 1000 other ways to interact with them.

  6. Cool – I have read people who think you should just NEVER do it, and at our house it can be fun! My son (2 years old) will often ask for more, more! (first with signs as a baby, and now “mo, mo!”) I definitely think stopping when asked is key. I used to tickle my sister and she hated it… Thanks for the food for thought once again.

  7. Thank you, Arwyn! I have terrible tickling memories, buy I’ve found that it really can be fun with my kids. You’re so right; it’s about respecting boundaries and acknowledging that a little goes a long way. Just because it’s fun for a couple seconds does not mean it’s fun for a couple minutes.

  8. What a fan-freaking-tastic article! This is one of my all-time favourites of yours.

    I too have bad memories of tickling. I’m rather ticklish, and people don’t seem to respect “no” when it’s accompanied by giggles.

    You’ve really opened my eyes on this topic. I now “ask” my one-year-old if she’d like to be tickled. Turns out, she doesn’t like it as much as I thought she did. My bad :-|. Still, better to know that not.

    Thanks for the great piece!

  9. I loved being tickled as a kid but somewhere in my adolescence a switch flipped and now I want to punch anyone who tries. This is why I don’t do a lot of tickling and when I do I use the safe-word policy (elephant if you’re wondering). I always ask if she remembers it before I start. I like it because it allows her the fun of pretending she wants me to stop without there being any confusion.
    I have to say though, I also get a giggle out of the fact that I drew on S/M practices to teach my kid about asserting her boundaries.

    • Heehee… I also get a giggle out of that! (I also giggle over lots of other things, like vegetables that look like genitalia.)

      But hey… kink has already got a well-defined system of boundaries and consent. Why not use the existing framework, seeing as how it tends to work pretty well?

      Also, thanks for posting this, Arwyn.

  10. Oh gods… thank you.

    I’m slightly triggered by this (discussion of it isn’t nearly as bad as someone doing it), but with a positive outcome; it couldn’t have filled my need to hear these things said without uncovering the place where the need was.

    That it’s not just an issue of consent and boundaries and respect and so on (I knew that… all too well), but that it could be a tool for learning about those things – wow, I never thought of that. Couldn’t think of that; for me, it’s too strongly associated with people using it as a “harmless” way to assert power-over.

    Like Rashel, about the only thing I learned was to not be ticklish – or, more accurately, to suppress my reflexive reaction and replace it with a firm angry NO; until I mastered that, I couldn’t even analyze the power paradigm. Once I was able to do the analysis, I could begin getting rid of the bad habits I’d learned. (Yep, I used to perpetuate the abuse, because it was so accepted as “harmless” and visiting it on others was the only rebalancing I knew how to do. Ick.)

    A healing revelation, that it can be a source of learning the relevant positive habits. Again, thank you.

    Sunflower

  11. I pretty much never tickle my children. They’ve indicated they don’t really enjoy it; and I don’t enjoy being tickled myself. I don’t think tickling is a necessary component to parenting nor to childhood. I’ve always told my kids they have the right to say no to ANY touching of their body & that if someone else says no to touching, they must respect that. Always. You own your own body & are the one in charge of it.
    Great article, Arwyn.

  12. This is just perfection. my husband and I both hate being tickled, but our kids love it and ask for it. We often look at each other, baffled, like “how did we make kids who don’t hate this?” But I do it, we play “tickle tag” which the kids adore, I deal with my issues and only rarely have to ask that I not be the one being tickled because “mom doesn’t like it as much as you do.” I have, on multiple occasions, yelled “NO MEANS NO” across the room when it looks like a tickle fest is getting too one-sided. There are generally uncomfortable giggles from the adults in the room, but seriously – bodily autonomy isn’t only for sex. And better kids learn no means no now than in college.

  13. I’ve got the same memories of being tickled by a relative of a caregiver until I was gasping and crying. I hated it so, so much.

    I used to teach my children “no means no”, but now we’re working on “yes means yes”. It’s not enough to keep going until you get a “no”. You don’t even start until you get an enthusiastic YES.

    Good for preschoolers, good for college students, good for lovers.

    Thank you for writing this!

  14. I’m curious, why did you choose to introduce safewords instead of simply “stop” or “no”? Is it as the basis for future experiences or do you see a value in having nonstandard “no” words at a young age?

    Thank you for writing this. I only remember good experiences with tickling; even though I don’t really like it, it was always playful and fun. I don’t have kids, but will keep this in mind when I play with them.

    • I can explain this one. I’m going to use some BDSM psychology because it’s what I’m familiar with–and what the safeword policy was likely taken from.

      Sometimes when we say “no,” and “stop,” we’re being playful about it. When one’s lover kisses a sensitive area or does something that causes them to flush, we’ll giggle and say, “noooo, stop.” But we don’t actually mean “I don’t like that, please stop what you’re doing.” We’re maybe being coy, or maybe just testing them, or maybe just don’t want to admit that we do like it. When someone tickles your belly or pokes your sides, you might squirm and laugh and say “stop that, it tickles!” But you might not actually mean, “I despise that; stop it immediately.”

      In normal circumstances, it’s fairly easy to distinguish between a playful “no,” and a serious “no.” However, amidst all the giggles, smiles, and squirms, it’s difficult for the one doing the tickling to tell the difference between the two. A careful person will stop every second to ask “are you okay? Do you really want me to stop?” but that may become irritating to the person being tickled if they want the tickling to continue. A not-so-careful person will not stop to check, thus causing possible trauma.

      A safeword is for the benefit of both parties. It ensures that the person being tickled has absolute control over when the game stops by immediately letting the tickler know the difference between “I’m just joking with my ‘no,’ please continue,” and “no, I am absolutely not joking. I can’t handle this; please stop.”

      Hope I helped!

  15. Great post. We have a family safeword for tickling and I *always* honor it. I, too, hated being held down and tickled as a child and don’t like it any better as an adult. If I hated it so much, why would I subject my children to that without respecting their feelings and bodies?

    I find I do have to make it absolutely clear to my dad that he may not control my children’s bodies in any way. I noticed that he likes to hold them while he is talking to them but is seemingly unaware of them squirming to get away. They’re happy to sit or stand by grandpa and listen but they are not comfortable being held tightly. Can’t say I blame them! I remind my dad often and/or point out when I see them acting uncomfortable. This also applies to tickling. I’ve made it known that we have a word that means stop and it is to be honored at all times. Their existence is not for his entertainment, they have dominion over their own bodies.

  16. There is a lot of tickling that goes on in our house. My children love it (I don’t quite understand why). I used to have a hard time watching my kids and husband play tickle games, and I didn’t really understand why. I finally realized that it goes back to my own issues with my “no” not being respected.
    We have always made sure that when they say “no” the game stops. It doesn’t start again until they ask. Usually it’s my husband doing the tickling, and I have heard him tell them “You said stop, so that means I have to stop. Do you want me to keep going?”
    I do think that when played as an enjoyable game tickling is a good way for children to learn their own boundaries and that they can control their own bodies and enforce those boundaries.

  17. I was the youngest of five much older siblings who would all dogpile on me and tickle me simultaneously. I hated it and I hated them. One day we all went to a restaurant and the two siblings between whom I was pinned decided to tickle me. I screamed so loud the entire restaurant turned around to look. They never ever tickled me again.

    My first lesson in: Abuse likes to be secret.

  18. Wow, I had no idea this was so common. I also used to get tickled against my will as a child and I really, really hated it. I still remember the sheer fury at having my obvious distress completely ignored. I think teaching children about boundaries and consent is important not only as preparation for negotiating sexual situations, but for pretty much all interactions.

  19. This is such a timely post for me! My daughter is 16 months and I’ve been wondering about tickling, and how to do it in a respectful and fun way. These mindful suggestions are perfect – thank you!

  20. I fall into that category you mentioned at then of no way on God’s green earth I could ever be confortable playing any sort of tickle game, period, full stop. My current reflexive response to tickling is to grab hold of the offending limb and put it in whatever joint lock I can get with no respect for my attacker’s future mobility…and I don’t really care whether said attacker realised they were attacking me or not. That has gotten me in trouble a couple times, but has also convinced everyone who’s tried it that they should never touch me again, which is success as far as I’m concerned, so I have no intention of changing it. I warn people ahead of time, unless they’re stupid enough to try and sneak up on me, and with kids I’m a lot gentler about it, but that’s the biggest compromise I offer.

  21. Wow… I thought I was alone in this until this article -and these comments!

  22. I remember being tickled by my older brother. I’m very ticklish on most of my body and it’s really never been a fun experience for me. I remember hitting him since I couldn’t make him stop (I don’t recall getting in trouble for it from my parents; he didn’t hit me back).

    Interestingly, although I can’t remember much from my early childhood, a lot of photos from that period (between age 2-4 or so) show me apparently happily sitting on a lap or hugging someone, but later on I became fairly averse to touching most people. I wonder if it’s related.

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  24. Thank you for this food for thought. Can I ask you a question? When teaching your children about bodily autonomy, and that they don’t have to be touched if they don’t want to no matter what… how do you deal with things like shots at the doctor’s, or getting a splinter out, or even putting on a band-aid, when the child protests? I haven’t talked about body autonomy at all with my 3-year-old and wondering how to go about it since I’ve had trouble treating her injuries and taking her to the dr. in the past.

  25. Yes, had traumatic tickles in my own childhood. (Although it ended well, as I eventually managed to get understood and make it stop. But it took years.) And yes, it’s a fun game with my son, and he likes it. (We play ‘This little piggy’ and, to him, toes, belly buttons and nipples are all piggies *he* likes to tickle.) Thanks for making reconciling the two possible.

  26. Thank you for this! I am sure my friends who don’t understand my AP ways are rolling their eyes– “Oh jeez, she’s against *tickling*??” But I have terrible memories of my arms being pinned down over my head, someone sitting on my legs, & an aunt or uncle viciously digging their fingers into my side while I screamed & could do nothing about it. It’s torture. I hate it & never let anyone near my armpits because I just flinch. Ugh.

  27. Wow, I thought I was the only person with uncomfortable memories of tickling.
    I’m horrendously ticklish, and my dad in particular would tickle me all the time as a kid. I don’t think he ever twigged I didn’t like it. Ties up with bad memories of an ex of mine cornering me and tickling me.

  28. I’m relieved to see that I am not completely nuts for feeling the way I do about this, or the only one – I have horribly traumatic memories about this, and it seriously impacted my childhood. I was literally afraid to go near my father for years, because any vulnerability, he couldn’t seem to resist. If your armpit or foot was exposed in any way, he couldn’t resist jamming his fingers in there relentlessly – his whole family is the same way, and they do this to their children too. I don’t understand how those I grew up with, sister, brother, cousins, do the same to their kids, when it was so horrible for us.

    It was not just my father, but his ENTIRE family – ALL my uncles, that is the way they would “play” with us – we were laughing, so we were having fun, right? It’s an involuntary response!
    My dad would pin our arms over our heads and sit on top of us, and dig his thumbs into our armpits, taunting us the whole time. It would go on and on and on until he was done with us and decided to let us go, it was horrible and felt like an eternity.
    It never made sense to me since my dad is otherwise the sweetest and gentlest man, but he and his entire family seem obsessed with tickling kids.
    First, its humiliating. You are totally helpless, someone is doing something that is hurting you, and there is NOTHING you can do to stop them except try to bear it until they decide to let you go.
    The person restraining you is about 3 times your size. You beg them to let you go, and they think it’s fun.
    I feel like it is just a control issue, and wondered if they actually got off by putting you in this powerless position and doing things against your will. I do feel similarly about these experiences that I do about rape – I honestly would have rather been hit than subjected to this all the time.

    Other people in the room didn’t even acknowledge what is going on, like it’s the most normal thing in the world. I finally, around maybe age 7 or 8, embarrassed as I was, mustered up the courage to go to my mom and ask her please to tell my dad and his family to stop doing this. I don’t think she realized how hard it was for me to even bring it up. And she promised to tell them to stop, and she seemed to agree with me.

    After that, I remember one instance where my father had my sister restrained on his lap with his thumbs digging into her armpits for minutes, and was laughing about how funny it was that she just couldn’t stand being tickled like that and how hard she was trying to get away, and after he was DONE, my mother told him that I didn’t like when he did that. This only humiliated me.
    And further, nothing else ever changed – he never stopped, none of them ever stopped, until we grew up.

    20 years later, I still have nightmares about it – I have never tickled a child. I am extremely uncomfortable when around people who are doing this to their children. One time I actually walked over to my brother in law and took his 2 year old from him. He was a little angry, but I told him, she told you to stop, so you have to stop.

    She tickles her grandchildren now and I’ve asked her not to do it, just play with the kid instead of using them for entertainment, as a ragdoll, and she says “she likes it, she’s laughing”.

    Thanks for reading. I’m glad there are people that understand. Sorry this was so long, but I never talk about it and it was good to get it out.
    Thanks for reading, people make me feel stupid when I tell them I hate being tickled and not to do it – and they do it ANYWAY! My boyfriend thinks it’s funny, he will say you have to do this or “I’ll have to tickle you”. No one really understands. It’s even worse that they think they can use it as a playful threat.

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  30. I don’t actually like the advice in here for establishing a verbal safeword. First of all, tickling, almost by definition impairs the childs ability to use the safeword. And even the advice to stop periodically defeats the purpose of a safeword which is that once the safeword is used, play stops *instantly.*

    Further, I don’t entirely approve of teaching children this young to use “play no.” If they want to discover safewords and resistance play later, that’s fine, but for young children, I would rather they learn no means no and everything stops. If they don’t want the tickling to end, don’t say no.

    With Ruth (our daughter), she enjoys ticking and will ask to be tickled (enough that she made her own baby sign for it.) When she pushes our hands away or shakes her head we stop. Then if she wants more she can say “more” or “tickle” and we start.

  31. Sorry, I should clarify, I do like everything *else* in the article, and I agree entirely that children should only be tickled if they want to be tickled, it’s just the safeword part that worries me.

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