Thoughts compiled by Stefanie Hofman MA, LMFT
Tickling is often used as part of behaviors known as grooming performed by sexual offenders. Tickling is seen as a socially acceptable way for an adult to touch a child; offenders use this touch to “test the waters.” Most often, children will laugh or giggle when being tickled. This is an involuntary response but one that signals enjoyment and acceptance. Sadly, often when being tickled, children instead feel trapped, bound, and or helpless but because they are also laughing, which is a natural response to the sensation of being tickled, children do not understand their incongruent feelings. They may at once feel both strangely happy (laughing) and uncomfortable (trapped). Children often wish to please adults and therefore will go along with the unwanted touch as a means of being accepted.
Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of the book “Playful Parenting,” said that tickling can overwhelm the nervous system and make children feel helpless and out of control. The reflexive laughter can disguise discomfort, and even pain. It’s also a clear boundary breaker. When we tickle children without their buy-in, we’re teaching them that it’s OK to be touched and to touch others in ways others don’t like.
The worst kind of tickling is forceful and continuous, Dr. Cohen said. “You’re not tuning in to the whole child. You’re not seeing them gasping for air. When the child is saying ‘Stop’ while laughing, the stop is ignored.” This teaches children that their body-boundaries are unimportant. This teaches potential offenders that they can get away with more next time.
Teaching children safe body autonomy can be done by asking a child if he or she wishes to be tickled, stopping after a few seconds, and then continuing only if the child asks. By ignoring the “stop”, we teach a child that he or she is not in charge of his or her own body; we teach them that adults can touch them even if they do not feel comfortable.
One more thought: children begin to develop deeper awareness of inherent sexuality around the age of 9-10. This means that they start to notice more the differences between girls and boys, may start to wonder about sex and or their own developing bodies, and may experience fear, confusion, or curiosity about sexuality. Tickling a child past the age of 9 can complicate these feelings and increase their inability to understand the importance of body boundaries.
For more information, please call 763-566-0088 and speak to our Client Services Coordinator or stop by the NewPath Mental Health Services office at 8401 Wayzata Blvd., Suite 340, Golden Valley, MN 55426 to find out about services you are interested in.