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When tickling goes too far



Research shows unwelcome tickling can be traumatic

parents, kids, tickling, unhappy, roughhousing

Tickling: Our memories of it are great if we’re the one tickling. But they’re often close to trauma if we were ticklish and remember times when the tickling seemed to go on too long.

Jenny Marder has published a piece in The New York Times that may end up shifting the ways in which we think about tickling. And like most shifts in the ways we think about our routines, a backlash is almost certain.

“Many of us have memories of being tickled in a way that made us feel annoyed, uncomfortable or even violated,” she writes, referencing Socrates description of tickling being more pain than pleasure while also noting how much her own three year old loves being tickled. “What do parents need to know? Is there a right way to tickle our kids, and what are the dangers if we get it wrong? How do we tickle without violating boundaries? And should we be tickling at all?”

Marden’s story quotes Playful Parenting author Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. describing how tickling can overwhelm the nervous system and make children feel helpless and out of control as their reflexive laughter disguises discomfort, and even pain. Christine Harris, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of six papers on the subject, calls tickling “one of the most mysterious phenomena out there” given how one cannot tickle oneself.

The bottom line: She finds that if adults aren’t extremely attentive during a tickle game, they could miss how children are truly feeling.

READ MORE: The power of good touch

The story goes on to reference the Victorian definition of two types of tickling – high-pressure, finger-in-the-ribs tickling that brings on laughter called gargalesis and light, feathery movement across the skin, called knismesis. She references several studies that show the benefits of laughter for children, and how the light tickling can be considered almost therapeutic. It’s also a way, she notes, for parents to maintain physical interaction with their kids as they grow older.

Dr. Cohen, however, notes that this is where tickling can lead to problem areas, and that there are healthier ways to connect with one’s child physically, such as pillow fighting, wrestling, and “chase and miss,” where you chase your child, and then comically pretend to miss at the last moment, grabbing a chair as if it were them. One of Dr. Cohen’s favorites is “the sock game,” which can be played with two or more people. Everyone sits on the floor in a circle, legs stretched out, wearing socks and no shoes. Then you count to three and try to pull everyone’s socks off while keeping your own socks on.

“You’re looking for intensity where the child is more in charge,” he said. “If one person is stronger and more confident, and they’re the ones always in control, then you’re crossing the line from healthy roughhousing to overpowering.”




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