“Run, run, run!” That’s what we hear from laughing and screaming kids. It sounds so sweet when children are having fun with a “Tickler”. Is it really fun though? Is it something that we, as parents, should watch/pay attention to more?

In my years of experience as a massage therapist, roughly 80% of my clients have said to me: Oh, don’t touch here or there, I am really ticklish.  Or they might say:  When I was a kid I was tickled really hard.

Let’s examine the tickling mechanism —

Kids are running around and screaming. They get caught and, while being tickled, they are being touched, roughly, and in vulnerable areas like the abdomen and under the arms. It’s not always just a light touch; it can be rough for a little body and it may be reapplied over and over and faster and longer.

What do their little bodies do?

Their little diaphragms get so contracted that, often, the children are unable to talk and, thus, express themselves clearly. They tighten up their muscles to the level that they can’t even feel the rough touch. With their muscles in spasm, it’s conceivable that patterns of muscle contraction are born. Even though we hear them laughing, at first, it is pain which they are feeling.

Usually the “tickle monster” doesn’t stop the tickling process because he sees the little ones laughing. But if the reaction would be a cry, he wouldn’t continue. Naturally, we stop when we hear or see the kids in pain. Unfortunately the reaction to rough tickling is a laugh – almost like hysteria. Tough tickling works on muscle fibers, stimulating the nervous system and a natural response is to protect and tighten.

I am not against light touch tickling. While feather-like touch can produce calmness, it is a useful tools in treating kids with ADHD.  (I’ll be discussing this at a later time.) However, a strong  tickle that makes people laugh is actually stimulating the part of the brain called the hypothalamus which is responsible for the fight or flight mechanism. Perhaps laughter induced by a harsh tickling is a self-defense mechanism and, in the past, it was an acknowledgment of defeat from a perpetrator.

You might be asking: Why do kids start to laugh and run when we just pretend to tickle them?

Tickling stimulate the unmyelinated nerve fibers that cause pain, which causes kids to contract their muscles. The body remembers this sensation and prepares itself as a protective/defense mechanism, and unconscious muscle memory forms.

So now, as an adult, when I’m trying to work around your extremely tight back, the reaction is involuntary muscle contraction.  In order to counter the muscle memory and achieve the results your body needs, I approach the area slowly and firmly, and just hold the muscles. It often takes many more treatments until my work no longer triggers the undesired sensory response. Ultimately, we are able to get rid of the tickle-induced anxiety and the residual tightness of the muscle. It takes time, but when it’s done, clients are free of pain which was a result of “damaged” contracted muscles and which was negatively affecting other connective tissues and causing imbalances.

Rules with Children

  1. Tickle lightly with attention to the child’s reaction
  2. Avoid harsh/rough/fast touch for a prolonged period of time. If someone else is doing this to your child, tell him to ask the kid if it is okay or, if too young, make them stop.
  3. Respect the child’s “NOs” and “STOPs”.

In following these rules, we may avoid future issues such as sensitivity to touch, insecurities, and a potential inability to be sexually-open in relationships.  In addition, simply ackowledging their requests reinforces that their words count and their desires are respected.

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