Child & Family Development Child & Family Development

August 20, 2021

Tactile Defensiveness

By: Scott Buie, MOT, OTR/L

Tactile defensiveness is when a child is hypersensitive to certain textures or tactile input, to the point of interfering with their everyday life. Extreme reactions such as shutting down, running away, having temper tantrums, or getting angry often result from interactions with these stimuli. Some common sensitivities include clothing (tags, seams, logos, itchy/scratchy material), food sensitivities due to textures or temperatures, coarse dry textures (such as sand), wet, slimy, or sticky textures (such as glue or soap).

Tips for Overcoming Tactile Sensitivities 

  • Don’t force it
    • Forcing your child to touch or wear something that already causes anxiety will only make things worse and make them less likely to explore new textures in the future
  • Gradually expose your child to new stimuli
    • Have them wear a new clothing item for a few minutes a day and gradually increase the time based on the child’s comfort level
    • Start with tolerable textures and slowly work up to less tolerable textures
  • Consider buying sensory clothing
    • Tagless clothing (or cutting off the tags), socks without seams, and softer material clothing are all good options to try for children with clothing sensitivities
  • Make a mess and have fun. Create sensory bins for dry texture sensitivities.
    • Bins with rice, beans, sand, and other dry textures are great ways to desensitize children to different textures. Add toys or other items small items to the bins and create a game. Have child find items with feet or hands depending on their area of sensitivity. Start by using a spoon, stick, or tongs to explore the bins if the child is wary about using their hands
    • Play with shaving cream! Your child can draw a picture or practice writing letters or words as an additional educational twist! If your child is wary, start by having them use a stick or another item and gradually work up to using their hands
  • The more a child is exposed and given the opportunity to explore different textures, the more open and less sensitive they will become
    • Do experiments with different textures: For example, make bouncy balls or homemade slime. Parental participation will make your child more likely to join in. Even if they won’t touch the materials, get them involved in the activity.

Remember each child is different. It is important to take into account the needs of each child and recognize that one approach may work for one child but not another. If you need to, consult an Occupational Therapist. Occupational therapists are experts on the sensory system and can work with you to create an individualized sensory diet that meets the needs of your child.