Is It Safe to Tickle Toddlers?

Understanding the Importance of Body Autonomy

Father tickling daughter
Kristen Curette Hines/Stocksy United

Tickling your toddler often leads to shrieks of laughter, but there are some interesting theories against it. Is there any truth to the idea that tickling toddlers is harmful?

A Misleading Response

Although many parents have tickled a child at one point or another, just because a child laughs in response doesn't mean that he or she is enjoying the tickling. Humans laugh when we are tickled as an automatic response, much like sneezing.

Tickling was even used as an actual form of torture throughout history, so as parents, it is important to understand that a child's laughter doesn't mean that he or she likes or wants to be tickled.

The Effect of Tickling on Body Autonomy

Aside from the fact that your toddler may not be able to communicate whether they enjoy being tickled, forcing a child to let you tickle him or her also can send a dangerous message about body autonomy. Namely, from a child's perspective, it is reinforcing the idea that an adult has the right to do something he or she wants to do to your body, even if you ask them not to.

It's a scary thought, but as hard as it can be to think about and as much as you and me want to write off the idea as "silly," it is important to consider that as parents, we have the responsibility to teach our children from a very early age that they—and only they—are the ones in control of their bodies.

This is teaching them body autonomy, the thought that no one else has a right to touch them without their permission. And that means respecting them when they don't want to be touched on a simple level, so that if they were ever to be in an abusive situation they can recognize that what the adult is doing is very, very wrong.

Teaching Children Autonomy

Although it's not directly related to body autonomy, a study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that teaching toddlers early on to make their own decisions is an important life skill. This study looked at how toddlers learn to problem-solve and make decisions.

The results of the study suggested that when parents take a more relaxed approach and let their toddlers take the lead and figure out what they want to do, toddlers are better able to develop executive functioning brain activity. In other words, letting toddlers take a more active role in decision-making helps their brains develop the abilities and skills they will need all throughout life.

And while letting your child make a decision about whether or not they want to be tickled may not have been the point of that particular study, it's still an example of an area where we should let our little ones voice their own opinions and maybe even more importantly, learn that only they are in control of their own bodies.

Choose Other Means to Physically Connect

The physical connection, as in actual touching, between a parent and a child is very important. Humans need physical touch to survive and thrive, but there are other ways to encourage the physical bond between a parent and child, besides tickling. Try:

  • Reading together. Ask your child if he/she would like to sit on your lap to read a story, or have your child read you a story.
  • Massage. Some children may benefit from the connection of a massage. Massage in babies has been linked to calming infants, increasing weight gain, and regulating their temperature. You can follow the same techniques for a toddler massage, using a simple lotion or an oil with one drop of your favorite essential oil. Just be sure to check with your pediatrician before you use an essential oil on your toddler's skin, as some children may be more sensitive than others or have a medical condition that could make certain essential oils dangerous.
  • Body-based play. If your goal is to have some fun through movement, try other body-based play techniques, such as playing "horsey," ring-around-the-rosy, or having a hugging contest. The key is to ensure that your toddler is the one in control of the game and how his or her body is being touched.

Sources:

Matte-Gagné, C., et al. Stability in Maternal Autonomy Support and Child Executive Functioning. J Child Fam Stud. 2015.

Continue Reading