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Sure, tickling seems like an innocent way to spur on giggles. But what if it makes kids uncomfortable? Here's what experts say about the right way to physically play together with young children.

By Caroline Chirichella
March 26, 2021
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An image of a dad tickling his daughter.
Credit: Getty Images.

When you and your partner have children, it's expected you won't agree on everything when it comes to raising them. Of course, you may allow little things slide, like when one partner is OK letting your little one stay up past their bedtime. But then there are some things that you can't let go. In my case, it's my husband's love of tickling our daughter.

Let me start by saying I have never been a fan of tickling. I have always found it to be too aggressive. Even as a child, I absolutely hated being tickled and luckily my parents never did it.

That's probably why I became angry the first time my husband tickled our daughter when she was a baby. I was concerned since she was too young to vocally express whether or not she liked it. Now at 2-and-a-half years old, my daughter laughs and smiles when my husband tickles her. For him, this means she enjoys it. For me, I worry her giggles are just a natural reaction to being tickled and she might, in fact, hate it but doesn't know how to tell him to stop.

Is Tickling Kids OK?

From a medical point of view tickling can be OK, depending on how it's done. "Tickling may be used by parents of young children to encourage laughter and joy and can be used to promote bonding in young infants with parents," says Sara Siddiqui, M.D., F.A.A.P., a pediatrician at NYU Langone Huntington Medical Group.

But she warns it can be trickier for older kids who may get uncomfortable when the tickling makes them feel they aren't in control of the situation. "Gentle touching of your baby or child is fine. Tickling to the point of the child not being in control may be detrimental to child development," says Dr. Siddiqui. "Teaching children boundaries and the importance of maintaining body positivity and control is essential."

Setting the Right Boundaries

Experts say it's important to begin teaching children these lessons of being in charge of their bodies from a young age. In other words, they're the boss, explains Lauren Knickerbocker, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone Health. "Tickling, as well as rough and tumble play between parents and kids, is a natural interaction that affords kids the opportunity to learn to control their physicality and stay safe," says Dr. Knickerbocker. "There are some caveats that parents should keep in mind to make sure that everyone can assert their own boundaries when necessary and that they are having fun."

Think of this type of play as a time for children to remain "the boss of their bodies" by stopping the tickling when the child asks the first time. It's also a great time to discuss boundaries. "Ensure that your child also knows that they cannot engage in this type of play with other children, or with you, without consent," says Dr. Knickerbocker. "It's only fun if everyone is enjoying it."

Dr. Siddiqui agrees. "Children need to understand the difference between good and bad touching," she says. Tickling can be a grooming behavior or a prelude to abusive situations. "It is imperative to teach children about body autonomy and stating if something feels uncomfortable to them to let an adult know as soon as possible," explains Dr. Siddiqui.

And what about if they can't verbalize their feelings? It's essential to begin understanding your child's cues, such as eye contact, their moods, or emotions, even in infancy. "Listening to your child's verbal and nonverbal communication regarding activities that are done together is an important part of child development," adds Dr. Siddiqui.

If your child does express dislike for tickling, find another way to play since that is an important part of child development. "Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Some other ideas: Engage your little ones by reading together, encouraging pretend play, or having fun with age-appropriate toys.

The Bottom Line

My husband will be happy to know that tickling our toddler isn't quite as bad as I thought it was—as long as we continue to teach her that she's in charge of her own body. And if our toddler expresses a disdain for being tickled in any way, my husband knows to stop immediately.

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