5 Reasons Why Tickling Kids Can Be Harmful

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For generations, parents have tickled their children. You may think that tickling kids is one of the quickest ways to improve their moods and bond through physical touch. But have you ever considered that your child may not be having as much fun as you believe? Even if your intentions are genuine, tickling them could be harmful.

Tickling may elicit chuckles more quickly than any other game, but that does not guarantee your child is having fun. They may laugh because they can’t help themselves and have no way of telling you to stop. It can have a lasting impact on children, and many may not equate tickling with a happy experience.

Read this post to learn about the types of tickling and how tickling can be harmful to children.

Types Of Tickling

Our skin has different sensory receptors (cells and nerves) that help us feel different kinds of sensations. Tickling generally refers to two types of sensations, namely (1) (2)

1. Knismesis

This refers to the ticklish or itchy sensation you get due to a light touch in any part of the body. Many animals, including cats and dogs, have this reflex. The best example of this sensation is the feeling you get when a feather trails along your skin.

2. Gargalesis

This happens due to a heavier touch to ticklish parts of the body — the soles of the feet, underarms, the neck, the ribs, and the tummy are some of these spots. Touching these parts of the body induces involuntary laughter.

Is Tickling A Child Harmful?

In the 19th century, theorists, such as Charles Darwin, had suggested that tickling was connected with humor. However, scientists have debunked this theory and are of the view that tickling is more of a reflex (2).

Tickling is a game we usually play with children. However, children often feel helpless and out of control while being tickled. They cannot tell you to stop because they cannot draw breath, and you are likely to mistake their laughing for encouragement.

Many children feel paralyzed due to tickling and go to any lengths to protect themselves from being tickled. In fact, many adults state that they have felt very uncomfortable while being tickled as children (3).

While we, adults, might consider tickling as enjoyable for children, and while our intentions might be good, tickling can be downright uncomfortable for your child.

Why You Shouldn’t Assume Every Kid Loves Being Tickled

Like every other physical activity that requires contact with another human, tickling should also require consent. However, as tickling is often seen as a form of play, many people do not think it necessary to ask for a child’s permission before touching them.

The following are a few reasons why you shouldn’t assume your child likes being tickled.

1. They cannot stop giggling because they cannot help it

Even if they hate it, your children will be giggling helplessly and would not be able to tell you that they are not enjoying it. The laughter that occurs with tickling is reflexive and is not the same as what happens after listening to a good joke (4).

2. It violates their right to bodily autonomy

We have heard a lot about consent and how touching someone without their consent is a violation of their bodily integrity. It is necessary to ask whether your child is okay with being tickled.

3. It can be humiliating

Any person who is being tickled loses self-control. They are unable to state what they want, and they struggle to regain control. This can be humiliating for a child. Even if your intentions are good, the result may be hurtful to the child.

4. Tickling can cause medical complications

When a child is tickled continuously, they start laughing uncontrollably and are unable to talk or breathe. In some cases, they might even lose consciousness. As they cannot tell you to stop, you might not realize that they are in trouble.

5. Tickling creates trust issues

If your child does not like to be tickled, tickling them against their wish might create lifelong trust issues. As they grow older, they may equate tickling to physical abuse, develop a major mistrust for people touching them, and try to avoid crowded places for fear of being touched (5).

If you have been tickled as a child and enjoyed it, you might find it difficult to fathom why you must not tickle your child. However, every child is different. While you might have enjoyed the experience, another child might not. You should always ask your child for consent and let them set boundaries before tickling them.

Tickling kids may not be enjoyable and can make them feel helpless since they have no control over their bodies. Their giggle is involuntary and may make breathing difficult for them. A child can even lose consciousness if tickled for a long duration. In addition, if a child feels uncomfortable while being tickled, it can be harmful for them. Hence, you should try other ways to make them smile and laugh. Telling jokes, playing games, or having an enjoyable moment together can help you bond with your children and make them love you all the more.

Key Pointers

  • While tickling can be fun for adults, it could be downright uncomfortable for children.
  • The laughter during tickling is reflexive and is not a sign of enjoyment.
  • Laughing uncontrollably due to continuous tickling can make breathing difficult for the child.
  • Tickling a child against their wish could hurt them and cause trust issues.


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. When touch turns to tickle; The University of Melbourne
2. Christine R. Harris; The mystery of ticklish laughter; American Scientist (1999).
3. Tickling Kids Can Do More Harm Than Good; Hand in Hand Parenting
4. Christine R. Harris and Nancy Alvarado; Facial expressions, smile types, and self-report during humour, tickle, and pain; Cognition and Emotion (2005).
5. Tickling: Just Fun or a Kind of Abuse?; Kars4Kids
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Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist, a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) and a toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different... more

Dr. Neema Shrestha

Dr. Neema Shrestha is a pediatrician with a special interest in the field of neonatology. Currently working in Kathmandu, Nepal, she completed her MBBS from Kasturba Medical College, Manipal in 2008, Diploma in Child Health from D.Y. Patil University in 2011, MD from Nepal Medical College in 2015 and Fellowship in Neonatology from Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi in... more