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!