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A ticklish subject
August 27, 2013 - Betsy Bethel
There are two camps on the subject of tickling children: the first says it's fun and harmless; the second says it's akin to abuse.
Just like most things in life, for most people, reality falls somewhere in the gray area.
The subject came up today with a Facebook post that I shared from a friend's page: "I hate being tickled, I do not think it's cute, I do not find it funny, I will kick you in the face." I shared it — despite the improper use of punctuation and the threat of violence — because I think it's important for people to realize that not everyone likes to be tickled.
It also gave me the opportunity to describe an experience my daughter had this summer. I didn't see it happen because I and the other adults were around the back of the house while the kids — five cousins ages 7 to 13 — were playing out front. The oldest cousin, a boy, was holding my daughter upside down and tickling her. When I heard her crying, I went to investigate. She told me, gasping for breath through her tears. I held her while she cried and cried. The cousin, whom we only see once or twice a year, looked shocked at her reaction and was apologetic. I told him that, probably unlike his 11-year-old sister, Emma is not used to being tickled like that. My daughter was positively mortified at the violation that occurred. It was an awful experience for all involved. The next time we saw them, a few days later, she was anxious beforehand, worried he would try to hurt her again. We assured her it would not happen. We tried to tell her he was a not a bad kid. I truly don't think she believed us.
The post sparked some comments from others who agreed with me, and I decided to look up some information about tickling and abuse. One of the first items to pop up was an article about Victim 6's testimony in the 2012 trial of now-convicted child sex offender Jerry Sandusky. The boy said Sandusky called himself "the tickle monster."
To me, that says everything.
But I also found several blogs, articles and forums in which some people expressed anger at the suggestion of tickling being called abusive. One asked something like: "What's next, that bathing your child is sexual abuse?" Another responded to a "news report" that you shouldn't tickle a child if he doesn't like it with the comment: "Well, duh!"
Others, however, shared relief that their feelings were validated, that they hated being tickled as children and that they were tickled by people as a form of bullying, torture or sexual abuse.
What I think most important for parents to know is the fact that some sexual predators use tickling. I found several child sexual abuse prevention sites that warned parents that tickling is one way predators "groom" their victims, like Sandusky did. The abuser will use tickling as a way to "harmlessly" touch a child and will move from that to other forms of touching. It's important to note children who laugh while being tickled aren't always enjoying themselves.
A key to prevention, according to a June 19, 2012 Darkness to Light blog post titled "Lessons from Sandusky — Lesson # 1 — Tickling Taken Too Far," is for parents to "reject this behavior as inappropriate and interrupt the grooming pattern of the abuser. If you see this happening to a child you know, you can explain to the adult that his or her behavior is not appropriate and is making the child and others feel uncomfortable.
"The touch may be perfectly innocent but you are calling attention to a behavior that the adult may not recognize as inappropriate. If it is potential grooming, you are sending a strong message that you are watching." And the most important part: "Most perpetrators will not pursue a child where adults are watchful." That last sentence is something I wish more parents understood.
I also have to admit, though, in my search, I found a children's book titled "Tickle Monster" by Jodie Bissett, which the author says she wrote because "Children love playfulness. They love silliness and they LOVE being tickled!" Ninety Amazon reviewers agreed, giving the book five stars. Only six gave it one star. As strongly as I feel that tickling is inappropriate, I had to take a step back and look at my own behavior.
Yes, indeed, I tickled Emma when she was a baby. I loved to see her smile, and as an infant, one way to illicit that beautiful response was to tickle her under her chin or on her belly or behind her ears. I have done it to other babies, too, in a spirit of playfulness. As Emma grew, Dave and I discussed tickling and we both were against it. But then Emma would beg to be tickled. We were uncertain. We didn't want her to think our touching her or that being touched in general is "bad," so we would oblige — but very lightly and only for a few seconds. Now 7, Emma will still, from time to time, ask to be tickled. Again, we'll do it briefly, but we stop because as her loving parents, whom she completely trusts, we don't want her to feel violated in any way. I believe the line could be crossed before any of us realizes it.
So, is tickling inherently bad? No, but it can be used to torture others (just ask Emma — or my sister whom my brother tickle-tortured for years), and it can be used by sexual predators to groom their victims. People need to be aware of these possibilities and not ignore the potential for harm.
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