How Tickling Your Toddler Might Actually Be Harmful

Dad tickling little boy in bed
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images.

Tickling your toddler can prompt some of the most adorable shrieks of laughter you'll ever hear. But as fun as this common form of parent-child horseplay is on the surface, "tickle torture" can be just that: terribly uncomfortable for a child. Some child development experts also think it can send the wrong message to kids about body autonomy.

When is tickling your toddler OK and when could it be unwelcome or confusing to a child? Here is how to gauge your child's response to being tickled and tips for bonding while keeping boundaries in mind.

A Misleading Response

Most kids giggle or chortle in response to being tickled, but that doesn't mean that they are necessarily enjoying the experience. Humans laugh when being tickled as an automatic response, much like sneezing.

But even as they are laughing, many kids can be uncomfortable, or even in pain, while being tickled. Research of facial patterns show that people make expressions indicative of pain even as they are laughing. It's important to remember that tickling was an actual form of punishment at different periods throughout history.

Signs of Unwanted Tickling

It can be hard to tell when a toddler does not want to be tickled, especially because many are pre-verbal. While some kids truly relish the experience, it's important for parents to be cognizant and respectful of when they might not. Even if kids are laughing, the following responses should be a cue for you to cut out the tickling:

  • Expressing discomfort like wrinkling the nose, raising the upper lip, and grimacing
  • Making protests like "no!" or "stop!"
  • Yelling or shrieking angrily if they are pre-verbal
  • Crying

If a toddler asks to be tickled, use a light, playful touch and stop frequently to see if they want to keep up the game. If they show any of the expressions of discomfort above, stop and switch to another form of play.

Effects of Tickling on Body Autonomy

Aside from the fact that your toddler may not be able to clearly communicate whether they enjoy being tickled, unleashing an uninvited "tickle monster" can send a dangerous message about body autonomy.

The idea that some playful parental tickling could have psychological ramifications might seem silly. But parents have the responsibility to teach their children from a very early age about body autonomy: the idea that the child—and only the child—is in control of their bodies.

Empowering kids to use this principle in situations with trusted family members will make it easier for them to resist and report an abusive situation later.

Teaching Body Autonomy

Teaching kids to resist unwanted touches can help them develop important life skills, too. Research shows that when toddlers are allowed to make choices for themselves, that develops the parts of their brain that control executive functioning.

You can reinforce to toddlers that they are in charge of their own bodies by talking with them about the importance of respecting physical boundaries at an early age. Along with always asking them if they want to be tickled before doing so, teach them the following:

  • To ask permission of others before touching them: For instance, they might be taught to check with a friend before giving them a big bear hug. New talkers can get their message across in one or two simple words ("hug?").
  • That it's always OK to say "no" or physically evade unwanted touching, even from adult family members
  • That they will never get in trouble for telling you or another trusted adult if they have been touched in a way they don't like

Letting toddlers take the lead in making their own decisions, including whether or not they like being tickled, helps develop executive functioning and other life skills.

Other Ways to Get a Child to Laugh

Sometimes, we tickle toddlers in an effort to cheer them up or to distract them from an upsetting moment or an escalating tantrum. And laughter really might be the best medicine: Scientists say that humor actually helps toddlers learn new tasks.

But there are better ways to inject some comic relief into a situation than an ambush of possibly unwanted tickling. Here are some ways to connect with children through humor:

  • Silly faces: Seeing an otherwise buttoned-up parent flash a wacky expression can disarm and delight a kid.
  • Corny, age-appropriate jokes: Such as "What do you call a sad strawberry? A blueberry!"
  • Slapstick: In a study showing the skill-building effects of humorous situations, researchers made exaggerated expressions of frustration—tossing a clearly unhelpful tool down in mock exasperation—that was met with chortles of laughter from 18-month-olds.

Choose Other Means to Physically Connect

Physical connection, as in actual touching between a parent and a child, is very important. It's a major way that parents and children communicate non-verbally, helps regulates kids' emotions, and is associated with later self-esteem, life satisfaction, and confidence.

There are many alternatives to tickling to help cement a healthy physical bond between a parent and child, like these closeness-building activities:

  • Reading together: Ask your child if they would like to sit on your lap to read a story, or have your child read you a story.
  • Massage: We know babies benefit from the connection of a massage. You can follow the same techniques for a toddler massage, using a simple lotion or 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.)
  • Body-based play: If your goal is to have some fun through movement, try other body-based play techniques, such as playing "horsey" or "Ring Around the Rosie." The key is to ensure that your toddler is the one in control of the game and how their body is being touched.

A Word From Verywell

Tickling is associated with laughter, good times, and parent-child closeness. But it might be time to rethink our impulse to use this sometimes painful form of play to bond with our kids—especially toddlers, who may lack the verbal skills to communicate their discomfort.

That doesn't mean that parents should hold back from close physical connection, which we know is incredibly healthy for kids development. Keep up the hugs, the gentle horseplay, and yes, even some playful, gentle tickling—as long as you make sure your child welcomes it.

Empowering kids to choose whether or not they want to be touched, in even the most loving and seemingly harmless ways, sends an important message about body autonomy that will serve kids well in toddlerhood and beyond.

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN
Chaunie Brusie is a registered nurse with experience in long-term, critical care, and obstetrical and pediatric nursing.