This is a touchy subject.
While it’s literally about touch, it’s also an open letter with my heart in my hands to try explain my childhood to all those who didn’t and still don’t understand.
It’s to defend myself as an adult and to not be ashamed that “I am who I am”, and I have learned to cope with my quirks as a part of my every day adult life. And it’s about how it has changed how I parent and view my child’s own behaviors and quirks.
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So what am I talking about?
It’s a long funny name that basically indicates that I have always reacted negatively to textures and other stimuli that would be considered normal to others. The biggest issue being that as a child, I threw tantrums over not wanting to wear buttons on my clothes.
To this day, I still don’t own clothes with those small plastic buttons and neither do my children (because I am the one dressing them).
Because of my experiences growing up, that I am passionate about decoding everyday kid behaviors because I firmly believe that there is a reason behind the reaction and that all children have some sort of sensory need whether it’s big or small.
How to Recognize Tactile Defensiveness in Children
Kids with tactile defensiveness have both behavioral and emotional responses that tend to be way out of proportion to the issue at hand.
They seem to react in pain to things that shouldn’t be painful. I have always described it as the nails-on-the-chalkboard feeling when I touch a button or when something tactile really bothers me. And it’s true.
It’s like I cannot focus on anything but that feeling and all I want is for it to go away.
Some other examples of how I have experienced tactile defensiveness in my own life:
- I quit golf as a kid because I didn’t like the wet grass on my feet every morning.
- Typically I do not like loose clothing, and prefer the snug feeling of clothes.
- My parents would have described me as a picky eater. While I am better about what I eat as an adult, I still do not like hard and soft foods mixed (for instance nuts in a cookie or hard onions in a soft enchilada).
- Apparently I complained as a child that the seams on my socks were wrong.
- Tags in my clothes were bothersome.
- Tickling is more painful than it is funny.
- I cannot handle and find ways to avoid light touch almost anywhere on my body.
- When one side of my body is massaged, I need to feel it equaled out on the other side.
- Sounds seem to take the form of textures and can consume my focus because it feels like it’s stuck on me.
As a child I was labeled as being picky, whiny, a complainer, easily upset, and hard to please. And while those words may have described me, a little understanding for how I felt to resolve the issues would have gone a long way in making me feel validated and not like a “freak show”.
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By the time I was in high school I had just accepted that I was strange and embraced things like not wearing buttons. In fact, at our church camp for senior skits when the boys satirized the girls, of course the joke on me was someone throwing a cup of buttons and me running away in fear. It was funny as an 18 year old, but probably would have emotionally set me off when I was younger.
How I cope with textures, touch, and sensory issues as an adult
Finding ways to cope has helped me a lot of the years. While I still tend to avoid certain things like buttons, I have found ways to help myself deal on a daily basis. This makes life a little bit easier for me and better for those around me. And it may sound completely silly, but when touch is a huge part of marriage, it’s a big deal to understand and work through these issues.
- I talk myself up. My husband laughs at me because if he suggests a place to eat and changes it fifteen minutes later to go somewhere else I get upset. This is because in my mind I have talked myself up about the food. I have gotten myself excited about what I am going to eat and I am preparing myself for the meal at hand.
- Set up situations for success. In college I had a job where I had to wear a polo shirt with buttons every day. It’s the only time in my entire life I have worn buttons, but I loved the job and it paid well. So instead of walking away from a job I loved, I coped and worked through it. This meant having someone else unbutton the first button (or do it myself in moments of extreme bravery) and then washing it and wearing it as is. I did not have to touch any buttons this way because it was ready to pull over my head without ever touching one.
- My husband knows that massages and intimacy means no soft touches. Firm back rubs are soothing, but just a soft hand touching my face feels like he left a trail of tingling sensation and that will be all I can focus on.While I know intimacy is not an issue for children, this is just a thought to know that maybe your child would prefer a big bear hug rather than a kiss (oh how I hate kissing anyone that’s not my child or husband. So if you know me and read this. Please stop kissing me and having your children kiss me).And conversely maybe a child doesn’t want to be touched at all. It’s all about respecting those boundaries. But, you have to talk through them to find what works and what doesn’t.
- I try to use my words. This phrase gets used a lot with my toddler in our home, but my husband also uses it with me. Sometimes it’s hard to formulate how I am feeling. It’s easy to revert to complaining (which is perceived as only whining) instead of simply saying “This really bothered me and I would prefer _______”. This shouldn’t be difficult as an adult, but sometimes it just is. So for kids who don’t know themselves, this is so important.
- Prepare the environment. Like setting up situations for success, the environment is important too. For instance, I know how I need my blankets situated in bed, so I have my own blanket that does not get shared with my husband so that I don’t disrupt him and I can still get sleep. I know when I can watch TV or a movie before bed and when I can’t. But with my child I don’t so I try to make sure that there is no radio or TV on in her presence before bed because I know it can stimulate her and keep her awake.
How My Parenting is Different because of Understanding Sensory Issues
It’s important to validate children in their concerns. My own need from childhood has given me a heart for understanding when my daughter freaks out in the bath tub because she sees an unknown object floating by or when we’re walking into a store and she has irrational fear of a tumbleweed-like thing. No one taught me to fear textures; likewise, I did not teach my daughter to fear situations and encounters with the unknown.
- Whining doesn’t bother me too much – I know that there is probably a legitimate reason why my toddler is upset and that she simply cannot express herself another way.
- I work to find solutions before getting upset – There are little things my daughter does that could really grind my gears down over time if I let them; however, I know there are sensations that she is both seeking and avoiding. This means that her need to break chalk all the time is just part of who she is because she wants them in a more manageable size. She also does not like crayons to have a wrapper on them. So instead of letting the trail of crayon wrappers bother me, I have a small bowl near the art easel to let her place her trash in when she’s done picking at the crayons.
- I watch for patterns – Even though I am with my daughter more during the day so I would notice more anyway, I find that knowing that I was a quirky kid myself could lend to patterns in my child’s behavior. So the other night when my husband was struggling to make our daughter happy (and she told me to go away), he had to discover on his own that she had to arrange her food in a certain order and eat them in a certain order to be happy.
Interested in finding other everyday sensory issues & fixes?
First, I encourage you to stop by the Decoding Everyday Kid Behaviors Landing Page for information and to read about sensory processing and the eight senses.
Check out Sensory Processing 101. It’s a valuable book for all parents. It includes activities and information alike.
Also, check out Project Sensory and the Sensory Fix Toolkit to find out more about how to support children with sensory issues of all kinds and even how to help schools incorporate important tools to help kids with all sorts of sensory needs.
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Kara is an author, wife, and mother of 3 children living in Boston, MA. She has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development and is passionate about connecting with and even helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!