Q. I have a big hang-up about "tickle-fights." I become more and more tense when my children get involved in them, and I remind them--quietly at first--that I don't like that kind of behavior, but they always continue and I usually end up having to shout at them to get them to stop.

When I was little, my father used to tickle me unmercifully, until I couldn't get my breath. I always ended up crying and he always called me a "poor sport." Often the children's tickling ends up similarly, because one child "has enough" before the other(s) are ready to stop.

I try to think of them as puppies cuffing each other about, but I still don't see it as harmless fun. It always involves somebody tormenting someone else, often with the help of another tormentor to hold the victim down. Equally disturbing to me is the victim allowing herself to be tormented. Both positions seem unhealthy to me.

My oldest daughter, in high school now, has been involved in boy-girl tickle fights with members of her Sunday-school class. I'm not pleased about this either, but I don't expect to be able to do much about it.

If such play is indeed healthy, I would like to know of some books or articles to allay my discomfort.

A. Some tickling is all right--the gentlest teasing of a baby or a small child for a minute or two--but it almost always goes too far, causing fear, embarrassment and anger. It is also humiliating: It implies that one person has the right to tamper with another person's body--not a message you want any child to have. That's one reason your instincts are right, and there are many more.

Your own experiences are reason enough to stop these tickle fights. The tension that builds in you when your children start fooling around is bound to put an edge to your voice and this in itself will escalate their game, although it would happen anyway. Tickling is like that.

Even the name--tickle-fights--tells you that something is wrong. Any encounter that starts in fun and always ends in a fight shouldn't be started at all. You'd stop other fights if that "poor sport" label didn't make you doubt your judgment today. And it shouldn't. When a parent tickles a child unmercifully, you're talking about a secret sort of child abuse: minor compared to some, but scary just the same. If today's tickle-fights make you relive old fears, that's reason enough to stop them.

Tickling also has some emotional overtones, for it not only enourages one person to be the victim, but it encourages the other to be the master. This isn't the sort of image you want a child to have.

Tickling also has sexual implications. It can be a stimulant--and it surely is in high school--and this can cause guilt. It's important to explain to your daughter that boy-girl tickle fights in high school can invite boy-girl trouble, because it's another way to tease, and not a very nice one.

You'll want to talk with all your children about tickling, and why you dislike it so much. Do this when everyone is getting along fine.

You also need to consider if your children tickle each other in order to fight, or get close. Perhaps they need to feel they have more freedom to express their emotions. So long as children know they can speak their minds, within the boundaries of good manners, good English and good taste, they usually don't have to resort to tickling, or to fighting either.