ADVICE: Why is My Kid Weird About Touch?
Identify the behaviors in children who seek touch and the ways you can help
Our tactile system, or sense of touch, allows us to experience and make sense of the world around us through receptors in our skin. Early in our development, this system is crucial as it helps us gain an awareness of our body and understand the things we come in contact with. This system alerts us to pain and helps us to discriminate temperature, size, texture, weight, and shape.
When this system functions properly, we don’t give it a second thought. But when it’s not functioning properly in our children, they can have difficulty processing the touch input they receive, become physically uncomfortable, have difficulty with fine motor skills, and exhibit undesirable behaviors.
Some common signs that a child is having difficulty processing tactile input include:
- Avoids messy play
- Is a picky eater
- Avoids or overreacts to touch from others
- Becomes distressed by grooming
- Resists certain clothing
- Dislikes crowds
- Avoids walking barefoot
- Over- or underreacts to pain
- Touches EVERYTHING
- Puts things in their mouth
To make sense of this, I like to compare the sensory system to coffee cups. Some of us need A LOT of coffee to stay focused and function at our best. Others can have just a little caffeine and it is too much; we become jittery and can’t focus.
This is a simplified explanation but one that helps us to understand how our children’s sensory systems function. Some children need A LOT of sensory input to focus and function at their best. Other children can experience just a little sensory stimulation and it creates a state of overstimulation and causes them to shut down or exhibit undesirable behaviors.
Some children need A LOT of tactile input and will seek it out until they get it, and others can handle little input before they become overstimulated. To make it more confusing, their tolerance to input can vary from day to day, texture to texture, and can be affected by fatigue and stress.
The good news is, there are things we can do to help our children develop strong tactile systems. Whether a child is defensive to tactile input or seeks it out, it is important that we give them frequent opportunities for tactile play. Remember never force it, though. If a child is sensitive to touch input, expose them to it but at their own pace. Start with dry textures and work toward wet textures and even slimy textures.
My favorite tactile activity includes sensory bins. You can fill plastic shoebox sized bins with items like dry rice, pasta, oatmeal, beans, popcorn kernels, cotton balls, kinetic sand, or water beads. To make the bins more fun, hide trinkets for them to dig out, put measuring cups to let them scoop with, or plastic eggs for them to fill. Make a learning activity out of it by placing plastic letters in the bins to work on letter recognition or spelling words. Just be aware, if your child still puts things in their mouth, avoid items that could be a choking hazard.
Other fun tactile activities include:
- Shaving cream or whipped cream
- Finger paints
- Moon Dough
- Play Dough
- Making homemade slime
- Playing with their food
- Kneading fresh dough
- Playing in the mud
- Rolling in the leaves
So, the next time your child is filthy, you can get excited. Consider it neurological growth!
CINDY UTZINGER is an occupational therapist, mother of two, and author of Why Is My Kid Doing That?, a book to help parents better understand their child’s behavior.