Why you should ask your child's permission before tickling them

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Tickling - some people engage in it to bond, some don't mind it and for others it's a traumatic experience. And for some it can be a gateway to abuse.

While tickling can be a great way to connect with your child, there are some unspoken rules around it. Questions around bodily autonomy and consent are key things to examine, as well as your own attitude towards tickling.

Have you been that person who tickled someone until they cried? Do you respect the signals your child gives out around tickling?

It's an issue raised by Katherine Gray, who writes under the handle Unsilenced Woman on Facebook, whose post has polarised people, about the issue of tickling. 

She begins her post, "One day recently my three-year-old asked me to tickle him. I knew that tickling could be one of those activities that could move quickly from fun into boundary transgression, and kids often nervously laugh and tolerate touch they're not sure they want. I wanted to connect with him playfully in the way he was asking, and I wanted to model safe physical experiences for him at the same time."

Katherine goes on to relate their conversation.

"If you start to feel like you don't like it, you can tell me to stop," I said.

"Stop," he said, testing it. I stopped.

"Go," he said, laughing. I tickled again.

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"Stop." "Go." We practiced for a few rounds, with him seamlessly taking the lead with guiding the touch.

"And if I ever tickle you somewhere that doesn't feel good, you can say, 'I don't like that'."

"I don't like that," he practiced.

She clarifies it's not a first step to the 'sex conversation,' but a way to 'practice boundaries, consent, and normalise pleasure.'

The post has attracted more than 1,300 comments and been shared 15,000 times. Katherine has posted since then about people's harsh comments that she's 'overthinking' the issue, but is she?

When more than a few commenters divulged that tickling was the start of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, is this an area people need to think more about?

We asked two experts to unpack this complex issue, and they agree with Katherine.

Counselling psychotherapist Dr Karen Phillip and therapist Candida Virgo both say that power and consent are deeply connected ot the act of tickling, which renders a person paralysed to control their bodily reaction.

Why would tickling be traumatic for some people? 

Dr Phillip says, "We all, children included, have personal boundaries, likes and dislikes for our body. Asking permission to tickle your child  may have parents react, however, using it as an opportunity to allow children to set their own bodily boundaries is very helpful for the child. If a parent can ensure the child understands if they do not want to be tickled they only need to say, stop, and the parent stops, this teaches the child these bodily boundaries.

Further, if we can make sure the child is aware of tickling in the areas of their body they feel comfortable with is also essential allowing them permission and a voice to say stop if they become uncomfortable. Teaching children their own their body and their boundaries are respected is one of the best teachings a parent can provide for their child. Tickling a child can be such a fun activity to enjoy, as long as both are equally enjoying it.

A child that may have been traumatised previously from inappropriate touch or tickling can damage the child further if they think something uncomfortable may happen again, hence the necessity to hear the child and respond appropriately if they say no or stop."

Ms Virgo related a story from her own childhood that has led to a lifelong hatred of tickling. "I have memories of an older relative tickling me and the feeling of powerlessness is something that I've never forgotten. I don't like being tickled now and it's not something that I really do with my children."

What's your advice about tickling children in particular?

Dr Phillip advises, "Talk to your child about tickling. Ask them if they mind if you tickle them as a fun activity while ensuring you provide the understanding they are in charge of their body and if at anytime they no longer wish to be tickled or touched they only need to say no or stop. As a parent if you can see your child has had enough, withdraw from tickling and remind them they only need to say stop and you certainly will."

Ms Virgo says, "Unless you have a certain level of intimacy with a child, whether they are your own children or closely related, then ask yourself if it is really necessary.  If you want to tickle a child because it would please you to hear them laugh, ask yourself if there is another way to do this, telling a joke or playing a game.  If you want a greater physical intimacy with a child, look to their cues first.  Start with a fist bump or a high five."

What attitudes should people form around their child's dislike of tickling, even if they can't understand it?

Dr Phillip says, "Some people may think boundaries of tickling is over the top. However, while it can be a fun activity, we are providing our child an opportunity to learn about the boundaries of their own body which is most essential."

She adds, "Consider it a great learning tool for the child. Tickle away if they are happy and compliant then stop immediately if the child says no or stop. This can teach the child their body boundaries are important and must be listened to by everyone, parents included. The rule must also apply to siblings playing, if one says no or stop, the other must comply."

Ms Virgo agrees. "Even if you feel that there is a lack of spontaneity to your child's dislike of tickling, respect their bodily autonomy.  By teaching them that their body is to be respected, you lay the ground work for them to respect other people's bodies. It also helps build and/or maintain a sense of trust between the two of you."

The same goes for sibling tickling which can quickly descend into less-than-pleasant power interactions.

As adults it's up to us to set family expectations around tickling. It doesn't have to be a big deal, but if you tend to engage in tickling to bond with your child, it's entirely necessary.