Some kids crave the feeling of being touched and squeezed. They love hugs and snuggles more than most. While most children enjoy occasional visits from the Tickle Monster and a nice warm embrace from mommy, though, it’s a different story when they’re constantly pawing at friends, classmates and even strangers. From petting a friend’s hair or face to grasping peers or teachers at school, the behavior varies by child – but there is a solution.
All in the wiring
We’re all “wired” a little differently. This applies to our sensory processes, explains Dr. Jenny Radesky, a child behavior expert and pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.
“Some children have mild deficits in their proprioception” – that’s your brain’s ability to sense where your body is in proximity to others – “so it doesn’t actually register for them that they’re too close to someone else or that their body is leaning really hard on someone else,” Radesky says. “They’re just not as aware of their body position and space.”
Some kids are driven by their sensation-craving “sensory profile,” as it’s called, and they’re not able to curb their impulse for the sake of propriety.
“Children can love tickles and snuggles and hugs and they just love the sense of pressure up against objects or other people,” Radesky says. “But they don’t realize what feels good to them does not feel good to the other person, necessarily.”
Radesky says children with this problem are usually brought to her attention from the ages of 3 to 8 when children are in preschool and lower elementary – and they’re discovering social skills in the classroom. This is where kids learn about personal bubbles and the “keep your hands to yourself” rule.
“Most children will learn how to internalize these rules and go with them,” Radesky says. “For others, that impulse to feel like you’re pushing up against something and cuddling with someone is too strong, and it’s hard not to do that.”
Face the problem head-on
Radesky says it’s best to be patient with sensation-craving children and to treat each “minor moment of transgression” as a teachable moment.
“Right around the age of 3, children are starting to develop theory of mind,” Radesky says. “So that’s an important time to start helping children understand what effect their actions have on other people and if they see something one way that the other person may have received it a different way.”
Theory of mind is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and perspectives, Radesky explains. So children begin to have the ability to walk a mile in another person’s shoes around preschool age.
Picture books are one fun and approachable way to help children build this skill. Radesky recommends Personal Space Camp by Julia Cook and Hands Off, Harry! by Rosemary Wells. Read together and talk about how characters are reacting to the “handsy” character – and what could be done differently to make those characters feel more comfortable.
To curb your child’s need for sensory input, Radesky recommends a Lycra sleeping bag or a weighted blanket. And, to expend some energy and fulfill their needs, try building a pillow fort together or challenge them to a pillow fight.
Be sure to let your child’s teacher know which methods work best at home so they can be implemented in the classroom, too. If all reasonable techniques have been used to no avail, Radesky suggests seeing an occupational therapist that specializes in early childhood development.
Art by Brent Mosser
This post was originally published in 2017 and is updated regularly.