At the risk of asking a subjective question, I recently heard from another parent that tickling triggers the same nerves as pain receptors but at significantly lower levels of intensity. Is that true? If so, is tickling considered "cruel" and could it affect growth/development?
tickling triggers the same nerves as pain receptors
I've read something similar a while ago.
could it affect growth/development?
The article stated that it did affect growth and development, but positively. It's a way for kids to "train" being uncomfortable without any serious consequences. There's also research that suggests that tickling might help babies get a feeling for their body. As far as I know, though, there is no conclusive scientific evidence. The purpose of tickling has baffled us for thousands of years.
So I'd go with empirical evidence. Tickling is prevalent not just among humans; other primates do it too. All my kids love getting tickled in short bursts. They keep coming back for more. When we play a tickling game, they often don't want it to stop. So I take that as strong evidence that it won't hurt them.
I think the important thing is to stop tickling them before they get seriously uncomfortable, start crying, pee their pants etc. Mostly I feel when I'm close to reaching the limit and stop. But just to be safe we have an easy stop word in our family and if someone says it, the tickling stops. Sometimes they are laughing so hard they have trouble saying the stop word, but as soon as it looks like they want to say it, I stop. And I always pause a bit between tickling attacks so they can recover and stop the game if they want it to stop. Behaving differently (e.g. not stopping when they clearly want to get away) would be cruel.
We teach the kids to do the same when they play-fight against each other.
I hate being tickled. Absolutely loathe it. I was tickled as a kid and hated it just as much as I do now. The adults in my life tickled me anyway and it was something I made me feel really awful and I didn't really have the ability to explain why or communicate my feelings.
I haven't been diagnosed with anything, but now that I'm an adult it's become very clear that I am (and always have been) very sensitive to sensory input. This ranges from fabric being close to my skin to people touching me to being tickled. I've learned to cope with it mostly well and my family knows where my boundaries are.
I'm sure that many children are absolutely okay with being tickled and enjoy it. But for children who are sensitive to sensory input, it can be absolutely awful to endure. Please be sensitive to each individual child and their individual needs, especially since a child may not have the ability to understand or express their feelings about it.
This weekend I learned, that like me, my youngest son is not a fan of tickling. He gets very pent up and mad about it. So, I asked him if he would like me to not do it anymore and when he said yes, I stopped, and I will stop forever. Compare to my oldest daughter and son who love being tickled. My oldest son even comes up to me, arms high in the sky and yells "tickle please!" to which I usually oblige.
When I was younger and even now, I hated being tickled. I went as far as to get immune to it by having my sister force tickle me so I could remove the response to it. I found that if I didn't respond to people's tickling, they would lose interest and stop quickly.
There's the two comparisons. If they enjoy it and you can have a good time playing while tickling then I don't believe that's cruel. If they don't like it and they don't want you to, respect it and also ask that others respect that too. If you see someone tickling your child that doesn't like it, be it adult or other child, ask them to stop, politely at first. Sometimes children don't know how to get the point across that they genuinely don't like it.
It doesn't matter what nerves are triggered, the question is how strong and how the brain interprets it. Tickling in itself is not painful, however overdoing it is. But that doesn't mean that you need to be scared of overdoing it, as long as someone reacts positive to it, it is ok, if they start to respond negatively, then you will feel the urge to stop yourself.
For the development part: Tickling is actually important in the development. If you see what areas are ticklish, you will see that "tickle spots" are also the vulnerable spots of the body, stomach, throat, soles of the feet. By tickling you train your children's reflexes to protect these parts.
It is also important for social bonding. And I heard that it is supposed to make people more social later. (But that is just what I heard)
There are a lot of informative videos about that on youtube, if you want to gain deeper knowledge about tickling.
It has been my personal experience that tickling is often not about amusement or "fun", and in this case it is not a positive thing. It can be a way to exert power over another person. People justify this kind of dominance play by saying "Well, (s)he was laughing so (s)he must have enjoyed it."
No. It is a reflex. An odd one, to be sure, but you can be laughing as you are tickled and hate every moment of it. My father used to tickle me and I hated it and screamed at him to stop but he didn't until he had proved that he could overpower me and there was nothing I could do to prevent him from tickling me. I am still, fifty years later, occasionally overcome by the feeling that I can't stand the feel of my shirt on my neck, because of the way he would use his beard to tickle my neck. There is something threatening about the feel of anything on my neck, and even when I understand where it comes from I can't completely control it. He wasn't a self reflective man, and I doubt he was even aware of his own motives. At least not on a conscious level, and I was a child who could be quite willful. He probably told himself that it was all "good fun". Maybe he thought he was "playing" with me. But subconsciously, I am quite certain it was a way to exert his dominance in a socially acceptable way.
I, in turn, used to use that same technique to keep my brothers in line, even after they grew taller and heavier than me. I trained myself to be completely non-ticklish. It was a way I could keep them in line without being punished by my parents. It wasn't until I got a lot older and more reflective that I realized what I had been doing, and what had been done to me.
The only way to be certain the child in question is okay with being tickled (it can be fun if they trust the tickler to stop when it is no longer fun) is if you set up rules and keep to them. Absolutely. Tell them "Some people like tickling and some don't, I will let you decide if we tickle each other or not" and always pay attention to what they are saying. No means no.
If they say no and keep tickling you, it may be that they are playing, but it may be that they are trying to exert some kind of control (children often feel very powerless). If this bothers you, you can just say "If you break the rules, we can't play any more".