Tickling; A Form of Trauma?

mother father daughter reading a bookI have very clear memories of being a young child tortured by my brother who tickled me unmercifully whenever he could. I can remember the sensations of helplessness and desperation, wanting to cry, scream, get away and him sitting on me, laughing while he tickled even harder. He was four years older and capable of overpowering me. My parents never did anything to stop it because, after all, I seemed to be enjoying it—I laughed hysterically!

I have heard other adults talk about terrible childhood memories of being tickled either by siblings or by their parents, memories of times when they felt extremely trapped and helpless, despite the fact that they were laughing. This was the kind of tickling that was frequent and relentless, going on for what seemed like an interminable amount of time. As adults, some of them report struggling with issues around any kind of touch, especially on sensitive body parts like their sides or feet, because of the memories these touch experiences evoked.

family happily hugging in a huddleSometimes kids seem to enjoy tickling, even asking for a parent to tickle them. How can it be that tickling is a negative experience when children request it? When it seems like they’re having so much fun?

Perhaps there is middle ground. A little bit of gentle tickling that evokes giggles may be experienced as a playful form of love and engagement. The critical part is when that loving touch creates feelings of helplessness and fear. Parents who tickle should be very clear that tickling can be a form of torture if it crosses the line into the child feeling totally helpless, overpowered and out of control.

Parents need to always give kids a safe way to escape their grasp and should never sit on a child or hold a child down while tickling that child. The child must be able to quickly escape at any point. Parents can give kids safe words that if spoken, all tickling is to immediately stop. Perhaps it’s the word “Red” as in the color on a stop sign or traffic signal that means you must stop.

Parents should be aware that a few seconds of tickling is all that should ever happen, not several minutes or more. Parents should also monitor any tickling that occurs between children and put into place the same boundaries they exercise. Perhaps you have to make tickling completely unacceptable because children often do not have judgment as to when a limit has been crossed.

Here is an even stronger perspective on tickling from the article Why Tickling Kids Is Not Okay on the website The List. [https://www.thelist.com/108528/tickling-kids-okay/] Author Julie Spankles states the following: “Tickling unequivocally evokes themes of power. ‘A child can be transformed from laughter into tears by going the tiniest bit too far with tickling, raising the question of whether tickling is an expression of dominance,’ Dr. Richard Alexander, the Hubbell professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told The New York Times. He likens laughing while being tickled to a familiar submissive behavior among animals, saying, ‘When animals are subordinate they do a smiling, submissive grin, which may be related to our smiling.’ … When adults are tickling kids all in good fun, there certainly isn’t a conscious harmful intention, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a harmful result.

The #MeToo movement has brought to light how behaviors once considered harmless need to be re-evaluated as possibly unhealthy, denigrating or demoralizing. It’s time to appreciate that we need to pay attention to behaviors and their possible negative impact regardless of intentions attempting to be playful and engaging.

How did I survive the tickling torture inflicted by my brother? I actually trained myself to become so dissociative that I became immune to his tickling. I learned to turn off the sensations that led to my loss of control. After a while he would give up because it was no longer fun if he couldn’t turn me into a puddle of giggles. It took a tremendous amount of willpower on my part and taught me that I was capable of enormous levels of self-control, if I only put my mind to it.

To this day I’m not ticklish and can actually enjoy a gentle tickling on the bottoms of my feet. If tickled harder, I shut down and stare down my tickler. But not every child can achieve this level of self-control and none should have to learn to.
Invitation to reflect:

  1. What memories as a child do you have of being tickled? Was it a fun activity? Did you ever feel trapped, helpless and overwhelmed?
  2. If you tickle your children, what do you notice? Have you ever considered that they may not actually like it, especially when it is done frequently and for long periods of time and when they are unable to escape?
  3. What do you think your children might be learning if you tickle them frequently and without their having an easy escape plan? How might you modify that, so any tickling still gives them the power to decide what happens to their body?