Tickling Children Could Be Harmful, And It Turns Out We Don’t Know Much About It

Parents might think that tickling children is just a way to playfully bond with them, but studies have shown that the act of laughing or smiling when tickled does not necessarily mean it is enjoyable or fun. 

A 2005 study published by the Psychology Press showed that just 32% of the participants actually enjoyed being tickled, whereas the 36% majority said they did not enjoy it and the remaining 32% reported neutral/mixed feelings.

Why do we laugh when we are tickled? 


The study aimed to define whether the smiles and/or laughter often associated with tickling are indicative of a positive reaction, or just a reflexive reaction. 

It stated that the belief that smiling as a reaction to tickling is a result of amusement is based on the assumption that it is the same smile that occurs during humor. It is important to make this distinction, as smiling may also occur when one is experiencing other emotions. 



Other studies have also attempted to explain this; One particular study conducted by the University of California in 1997, stated:

"A person’s outward response to tickle looks just like the laughter elicited by comedy and jokes. Is the inward experience similar, too? Probably not. Most people find humorous laughter enjoyable; by contrast, they report that they do not much like being tickled, and few adults actively seek it out. There is little doubt that prolonged tickle can be extremely unpleasant. It is reported that Medieval warriors sometimes tortured victims to death using nothing but unrelenting tickle." it stated. 

Is it harmful? 


Although tickling is associated with fun, it was actually used as a mean of torture in the past. According to the Huffington Post, it was the method of choice during the Han Dynasty as it causes a substantial amount of suffering without leaving any marks or scars behind. A similar practice would take place during the Roman Empire, where offenders would be tied up and had their feet covered in salt which would then be licked by goats. Even the Nazis did it, by using feathers to tickle their victims. 

It can be associated with negative childhood memories.


Vernon R. Wiehe of the University of Kentucky published extensive research on sibling abuse and found that adults often reported tickling to be a form of physical abuse. 

This could be because it renders the victim unable to stop the perpetrator. Often, although the party receiving the tickles may explicitly tell the perpetrator to stop, it could be that they are not taken seriously.

Is it a question of consent? 

In 2017, Alison Thewliss, a Member of Parliament in the UK had stated in commons that parents ought to stop tickling their children when they ask them to stop. Her argument was that when doing so, parents are able to teach their children about consent from an early age. 

Russell Brand had also stated that he finds tickling children problematic, even going as far as saying he would 'punch' anyone who tried to tickle one of his daughters. He described tickling as "an attempt to subvert the child’s bodily autonomy, to take away their right to their own space and peace".

You can watch more on the topic in the video below:

Do you agree that tickling children might be harmful? Let us know in the comments - and make sure you pass this along to your friends and family!

Our content is created to the best of our knowledge, yet it is of general nature and cannot in any way substitute an individual consultation by your doctor. Your health is important to us!