Don't Touch Me!
Touch can be a treacherous thing for your child with poor tactile processing. If your child is overly sensitive, he may feel even a tap or a pat as a hit or a shove. Touch may be painful, or it may be a more intense experience than he can handle. Your child may resist hugs and seem hostile and standoffish, but in fact he needs your love and affection as much or more as kids who welcome caresses.
If your child is undersensitive, on the other hand, he runs the risk of hurting others. He may hit when he means to tap or pat and shove when he means to touch. While he seems aggressive, he's really just trying to get and give affection in a way that feels comfortable to him.
It's natural to feel upset when your child won't accept your hugs and shrinks from your touch. This is often interpreted as a sign of an attachment problem. But look at it in the larger context of your child's overall behavior. If your child seems to have goodwill toward you in general, and to enjoy your company and seek your attention and approval, but just doesn't like being touched or hugged, the problem may be one of tactile oversensitivity.
That doesn't mean you should stop touching or hugging — your child needs to have those experiences. But show some understanding and ingenuity in the way you do it. Let your child know when he is going to be touched; let him see you before you touch. Pay attention to your child's sensory preferences and see if there's a part of his body that's less sensitive than others. One mother reports that her son resisted touch in general, but would allow her to hold the tip of his foot. So she started there, and eventually he became comfortable enough with touch for more normal cuddling and contact.
Why is my child comfortable giving hugs, but not getting them?
For a child who is overly sensitive to touch, tactile experiences that she instigates — that lack the element of surprise and can be controlled — are less threatening than ones over which she feels powerless. Try to respect her preferences in this.
If your child hates being hugged, try letting her sit on your lap while watching television or reading a story, and get some of the same close contact going that way. She may prefer being hugged from the side, so that only her arms and back are touched, rather than from the front, where her whole body and face may get excessive tactile input.
Most children with sensory sensitivity prefer deep pressure to light touch. Give your child a head's up by saying something like, “You know what I'd like to do now? I'd like to give you a big hug,” and provide firm touch when hugging. Again, work within your child's comfort zones, and slowly try to expand them.
There's another way hugs can hurt: when your child hugs too hard. Children who don't feel pressure or pain may hug too hard, squeeze too tight, or add a pinch or a slap or a head-butt to an embrace. Try to avoid reacting to these modulation errors as if you are being attacked. Your child does not understand that what he is doing is inappropriate and uncomfortable to you. If possible, gently instruct that certain things hurt you, and try to take control of hugs by holding down arms or anticipating movements. Tell your child firmly, but without anger, when something is uncomfortable to you.
Children with tactile processing problems may have particular trouble when forced to be in close proximity with classmates, as when walking single file. Your oversensitive child will feel even the natural jostling and bumping that comes with being in the middle of a line as acts of aggression, and she may respond aggressively. If your child is undersensitive, she may not feel when she's jostling too hard and be accused of hitting or pushing. Either way, it's worth asking your child's teacher to let her walk either at the front or the back of the line. This simple adjustment can prevent a lot of potential incidents.
One way your child's teacher can accommodate your child's need to be at the end of the line is to give him a job that automatically puts him at the back, like turning off the lights or closing the door. The teacher might also send him ahead on a real or manufactured errand, such as bringing a blank note to a cooperating teacher.
Hair combing, cutting, and washing can be intensely trying for children with tactile sensitivity. Your child isn't making it up when he screams, “You're hurting me!” when you barely touch him with the comb. The head is a particularly sensitive area for most people anyway, and it's so much more so when the sensations aren't being processed accurately. Use caution and sensitivity when handling your child's head or face, and seriously consider short haircuts that don't need much combing.
Dental work is a frequent trouble zone for kids who are sensitive to being touched around the head and face or to being held down. Make sure to share information about sensory integration with the dentist before the appointment. Having the child wear an x-ray bib during routine dental care provides deep touch pressure and is often calming for children.
Maybe your child isn't sensitive enough about his head and uses it as a blunt instrument, banging it against walls or doors or your face with little apparent feeling or concern. Discourage this behavior, but don't treat it as deliberate self-harm. He may honestly not know that's supposed to hurt.
Regardless of whether your child is over- or undersensitive to touch, your job as a parent will be to find out what is comfortable for her and work from there. Do not try to force things on your child that her nervous system can't handle, and never force your child to stop doing things that feel good to her. Your child is just trying to make sense of the world in the best way possible, and your understanding and gentle assistance will do more than treating everything like a conscious behavioral choice.