The Science of Tickling: Does Playing “Tickle Monster” Make Parents Monsters?

Turns out the laughter from a joke and laughter from ticklefests are completely different things.

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There really is nothing quite as joy-inducing as the sound of giggling toddlers, and there is no better way to burn off a little energy before bedtime than running around the house. For these reasons, it seems like every family has some version of “tickle monster” they play with their kids. They chase their kids around the house, tackle them, and then tickle them until they scream. My family plays it, too. Honestly, it has never crossed my mind to question this tradition. My kids laugh ferociously every time we tickle them. Recently, however, I came across research on the science of tickling.  The main findings of this research, which was conducted in 1997 by the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), is that humorous laughter and ticklish laughter share some similarities but don’t share the same psychological experience. Specifically, humorous laughter indicates enjoyment, and ticklish laughter does not.

Tickling: Fun or Torture?

There are big differences between our experiences when we are exposed to something funny and when we are being tickled. Let’s get the similarities out of the way. The UCSD study (where college-aged test subjects watched something mundane, something funny, and were tickled, all in various orders) found that laughing at humor and laughing at tickling have a positive correlation—people who laugh a lot at humor tend to be more ticklish. This, in part, is what the researchers were trying to find out. Yet beyond that, the similarities stop. In this study, multiple tests were conducted to examine the relationship between tickling and humorous laughter. What was most interesting (or perhaps obvious) about the results was the revelation that laughing at tickling doesn’t mean the tickle-subject is enjoying the experience. “Despite agreeing to participate in a tickle study and despite smiling and laughing, most reported that they did not find the experience at all positive,” the researchers wrote. One study participant said she felt like she was being tortured while being tickled, even though she laughed a lot. The researchers proved this point by measuring the effect of being tickled on the participants’ response to humor. The idea was that, if tickling was truly enjoyable, the participants would laugh more at comedy after being tickled—research shows, after all, that people tend to laugh more at a new humor stimulus if they’ve recently been laughing. They’re already giddy; it’s like they’re primed to crack up at the next funny thing. This wasn’t the effect tickling had on the participants, however. The people who had been tickled and then exposed to Saturday Night Live didn’t laugh any harder than those who had not been tickled. “The present results are consistent with tickle and humour responses sharing a final common motor-response pathway, without sharing the same psychological state,” the researchers wrote. When you really think about it, it makes sense that tickling isn’t all fun and games. It’s easy for laughter to turn into tears after just a few minutes of tickling. There are also stories of young kids enduring “tickle torture.” One mom wrote into The Washington Post asking how to deal with her young child who had begun to dread being alone with his cousins for that reason. Since then, there hasn’t been a lot of additional research on tickling. Harris, one of the original researchers from the 1997 study, has published followup literature on the topic. Specifically, in 2012 he wrote about the differences between smiling and laughing when amused and smiling and laugh when tickled. Published in The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, he noted that a smile doesn’t always indicate a positive affect. However, he did clarify that he believes there is evidence that tickling can be enjoyed based on the environment and the relationship between the tickler and the person being tickled. This brings up interesting questions regarding the prevalence of tickling in parent and child relationships. Should parents banish the tickle monster from their home? Or, because of the trust in the relationship, is tickling fair game?

Picking Up on Your Kid’s Cues

The truth is, it probably isn’t necessary to ban tickling from your home. It is important, however, to think twice before engaging in tickle play. It’s easy to assume that everyone involved is having fun, but parents should pay close attention to their child’s cues. As Jennifer Lehr wrote in Scary Mommy, parents who tickle their kids need to have “ground rules” in place to guide this type of play. “Follow your child’s lead,” suggests Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills-based family and relationship therapist. “Some kids enjoy tickling while others find it painful. Know your child individually and intimately. Always give affection so that it feels good to both of you, not just the loving parent.” Children who aren’t enjoying being tickled may be laughing, but they’ll often say “Stop!” or try to escape your grasp. In our family, for instance, we have one little one who yells “Stop!” before coming back for more. In light of what I know now about tickling, we’ve started asking her if she really wants to be tickled before we play tickle monster again. Usually, she says yes. Sometimes, she says no. We honor what she says because we don’t want to risk sending the wrong message. According to Harris’ research, “A combination of thrill-seeking and pleasure in tactile contact might lead children to seek out what is still an intrinsically aversive situation.” Communication will help you and your child determine just how thrilling—and aversive—tickling is. In general, Mayra Mendez, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, believes that parents should allow children to set their own boundaries. “Smiling or laughing because you’re getting tickled doesn’t mean you’re enjoying it,” she says. “These are sensorial reactions that may not be matching the emotional experience.” This applies to games like tickle monster, says Mendez, but also to any situation that involves touch, including affectionate actions like hugs and kisses. This is why it is important for parents to be watching for subtle cues from their children. Some children may ask you to stop or pull away, but others might not be so obvious. Flinching at your touch or grimacing between laughs are examples of more subtle cues that they’re not enjoying the tickling, says Mendez.

Are parents sending kids a mixed message?

In light of recent events, the topic of consent is getting a lot of attention in our culture. Now more than ever, parents are concerned with making sure their children understand that they are in charge of their body and can say no. They’re also having conversations about respecting consent, trying to teach their children to respect any no they hear from friends or family members. In our family, we’ve been considering how important it is that our actions align with the things we say. We can tell our kids, “It’s your body,” but what message are we sending if we tickle them after they’ve said stop? Or if we pull them in for a hug or kiss when they try to wiggle away? We want to be certain we aren’t just preaching consent. We want to model it at home, too. As parents, it’s easy to feel like we are the exception to rules about consent. It’s easy to feel that, as their mother or father, we get to smother them with kisses or tickle them whenever we please—that we don’t need our child’s permission to show them affection. The fact of the matter is that this mindset sends mixed messages to our children, says Mendez, who believes that parents need to consider how their actions align with their lessons about boundaries to their kids. “Parents or caregivers as a whole have a tremendous power over young children,” she says. “Young children rely on learning about social cues, … what is acceptable, and … how to react to social messages from their caregivers.” Because of this, she says it’s important that parents act in a way that is consistent with what they say to their children. Children will learn more from their emotional experiences than the words their parents say. Pushing, tickling, or hugging resistant children only sends the message that they can’t trust their own instincts. It communicates to children that they can’t trust themselves to decide what they do and don’t feel comfortable with.

What happens at home matters.

It’s important for parents to remember that their children trust them more than anyone. The way parents behave will ultimately influence how they respond to their friends or to strangers. “If a child really isn’t comfortable with something, and the parent is still doing this action, that is sending the message that it’s okay,” says Mendez. This is confusing, and kids can’t discriminate between a parent who doesn’t respect their boundaries and a family member or stranger who pushes them to do something they’re not comfortable with. These experiences that children have early in life have a huge impact on how they interact with others and the boundaries they set for themselves. Ultimately, parents need to respect those boundaries. They need to teach their children that they can trust themselves to decide what they are and aren’t okay with; they need to teach them that it’s okay to say no to the things they don’t enjoy. The lessons we teach our children will become the foundations for their interactions later in life.

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