It may seem odd that tickling needs a rule of engagement, but if we understand what’s happening in our children’s bodies and brains during a tickle-fest we can maximise their usefulness and fun. Likewise when not handled well, tickling can become intrusive and stressful.
First the mechanics… The best theory of laughter (in general) I’ve found so far was proposed by Englishman, Basil Hall, living in Havelock North (not far from me). His idea is that we laugh as a spontaneous release of tension (and this is an ancient and embedded form of displacement for stress). For children the jokes they enjoy are often the ones around the areas of their life which they are most stressed about: toilet jokes for those for whom getting to the toilet might be an issue (learning to use the loo or no automatic access, like at school); sexual jokes for those who are becoming aware of the differences between men and women; prejudice jokes when a person is uncomfortable around another group ; New Zealand comedians, Brett and Jermaine from Flight of the Concords are funny because they use self-effacing humour to point out what many of us feel about trying to get relationships right, and missing the mark – and the journey to success. Monty Python is funny because it hams-up contradictions in society, and juxtaposes things together which are just silly (Ministry of Funny Walks; fish-slapping dance etc) Te Radar , Billy Connolly, and The Monty Python crew are clever-funny. The tension in their stories and jokes comes because we know there will be a connection, but it is not obvious, until the punch-line when we laugh big belly laughs -directly in proportion to the amount of tension we felt. Babies laugh at peek-a-boo, because to not be able to see Mum *is* a big deal and then, phew, there she is.
Tickling is the same. To have something crawl on our skin is a potential threat: spiders, snakes and rodents could all be dangerous to us and all of these moving over our skin can create the ‘creep’ factor. Yet, when our parents or other safe people tickle us we laugh. It’s as if our brains are disconcerted by the contradiction of fear sensation, causing tension, and the realisation that the sensations are caused by someone with whom we feel connected.
The fear-release connection becomes an obvious when we remember the places we are the most ticklish are either extremities – like feet (time to MOVE!), or places we are most vulnerable – around the armpits, neck and stomach.
While laughing together can be a great way to bond and for children to feel our love for them. It is the fear factor which can be triggered, rather than release of tension, when the tickle-er does not stop on request. The tickle-ee becomes obviously stressed very quickly and it is vital, on a deep biological level, that we stop tickling as soon as our children stay, ‘Stop’. Sometimes, of course, these stop times are mere pauses and the child will happily re-engage immediately afterwards. Other times, it is the end. To make tickling a fun and bonding experience – respect their wishes.
The anticipation of tickling can also create peals of laughter and stress release. We have a new song in our house that goes something like this:
“Look out Mr X, here comes the fingers…Tickly fingers and a raspberry mouth…”
If I can get to them, they are tickled and I blow raspberries on their tummies. Sometimes I am invited, other times I’m told, “That’s not *even* funny, Mum.” Or Mr (10 year-old) Hare will say, “You know that’s just a bit intrusive at the moment, Mum.” (!!)
Often just the thought of the tickles makes the boys smile, or laugh. And that’s the aim – because sometimes we only need a small stress-release valve to make us relax and allow our brains to find the solution it had been looking for all along. (I can go to the loo at playtimes; my body is still my body even though it’s changing; if I talk to that kid who looks different perhaps they won’t seem so scary; the journey to success is often slow and painful – if I do this today, then I’m one step closer; and so on.)
Laughter stops our ruminations and allows us to gain perspective on a problem we might have. We probably think our children don’t have a lot of stress in their lives, but the amount of learning and processing they are doing is vast: finding out what activities have predictable consequences; how to manage their bodies in time and space; how to do the things others around them are doing; etc. Then there is all the added stress from the busy-ness and constant stimulation of modern life it’s no wonder so many kids are being treated for depression these days.
Use the simple rule of stopping on request and tickling is another useful parenting strategy to use more consciously each day.