15 Ways to Help Kids Who Are Sensitive to Touch

By Amanda Morin

Kids with sensory processing issues can be over- or undersensitive to touch. This can make everything from eating to showering a challenge. Here are some ways to help kids who are sensitive to touch or textures.

1. Give advance warning.

Make sure your child sees you coming and that you explain what you’re going to do. For instance, try saying things like, “I need to wash your hair. I’m going to drizzle water on your head first.”

2. Find creative ways to show affection.

It can be hard not to feel rejected if your child doesn’t like being hugged or other ways you’d typically show affection. But you might just have to find a different “in” to being affectionate. Check with your child—maybe a firm squeeze on the shoulder or a “pinky promise” can be your special way to say “I love you.”

3. Help your child set boundaries.

Physical contact can be a stressor for kids who are highly sensitive to touch. Teach your child it’s OK to set boundaries with friends and relatives. You can begin by modeling how to say it. For instance, “I’m not a big hugger, but I’m so glad to see you, Aunt Mabel!”

4. Address safety issues.

When kids underreact to touch, they may not recognize pain as you would expect. Point out events that are typically painful (a bumped head or a minor burn). Explain that your child should pay attention to them and tell an adult when they occur. (You can also point out situations on TV or in real life when a child reacts to pain.)

Undersensitive kids also need to be taught about situations they may not perceive as dangerous because they don’t “feel” them. That includes bitter cold weather and blazing heat.

5. Pile on the blankets.

If your child has trouble sleeping at night, consider adding a few more blankets. The extra weight can provide the deep pressure some kids need for their bodies to be calmer.

You can also purchase weighted blankets. They’re costly, but they provide the pressure without the added heat of extra covers.

6. Let your child do the “heavy work.”

When your child is doing things that use muscles to push, pull, climb, carry, or lift, occupational therapists call it “heavy work.” For kids who are undersensitive to touch, it can help calm and organize the body.

Some chores like vacuuming and activities like riding a bike, pushing a shopping cart, carrying groceries, and even climbing playground equipment are all examples of heavy work.

7. Let your child dress in layers.

Kids who are oversensitive to touch can struggle with the feel of certain fabrics. They may also have trouble transitioning from long sleeves to short sleeves or from pants to shorts.

Consider letting your child wear a sweatshirt over a short-sleeved shirt and investing in clothes like zip-leg pants. When warmer weather comes, your child will only have to get used to the feel of bare arms and legs—not the feel of new collars or waistbands, too.

8. Buy multiple colors and many sizes.

Did you find a pair of pants, texture of tights, or type of shoe your child wears with ease? Make the most of it! Wearing the same outfit in many different colors makes up in comfort for what it might lack in style. And think about buying the next size up, too.

9. Have your child take the lead.

It’s tempting to wipe a smudge off your child’s face or brush the lint off a shirt. But for kids who are sensitive to touch, it may be better to point it out and have them do it themselves.

You may need to talk a younger child through fixing it. For instance, “You have some chocolate on your chin. The napkin didn’t clean it off. Why don’t you go use a wet washcloth to wipe it off?”

10. Experiment with different foods.

Does your child refuse to eat certain foods? It may be the texture, not the taste. You may not be able to notice differences in texture, but your child may. Some kids don’t like smooth peanut butter, but may happily eat the crunchy kind. It’s also possible your child will eat yogurt (or another new food), but can only tolerate the texture of a particular brand and flavor.

11. Keep foods separate.

Your child might get upset if different food textures get combined. But that doesn’t mean you always have to make a separate dish. Consider buying divided plates to separate foods. You can also serve casserole ingredients individually. For instance, if you’re making shepherd’s pie, set aside some of the meat, mashed potatoes, and vegetables before you assemble the pie.

12. Don’t throw in the towel.

For some hypersensitive kids, bath time struggles aren’t over getting clean, but over drying off. Your child’s towel may be too soft or too rough for comfort. Consider taking your child shopping with you to test out the feel of different types of towels and washcloths. Then let your child choose ones that are the most comfortable.

13. Restock the art cart.

Does your child shy away from touching sticky, slimy, or gooey things? You don’t have to avoid art projects. Stock up on large glue sticks or glue dots instead of squeeze glue. You can also invest in paint markers or sponge-tip squeeze bottles, instead of brush or finger paints.

In the meantime, if your child is working with an occupational therapist, you can come up with a plan to phase in traditional art supplies that aren’t yet comfortable for your child.

14. Make a place for mess.

Some kids will gravitate toward gooey and sticky instead of avoiding it. You can create sensory bins for your child to play with. Fill a small plastic bin with things like sand, rice, beans, shaving cream, or water, and add small toys. It can help contain the mess while meeting your child’s sensory needs.

15. Provide fidgets.

Your child may also fiddle with objects. Provide sensory-friendly fidgets (such as a stress or Koosh ball, Silly Putty, or rubber bands). Kids can carry fidgets in their pockets and won’t bother other people’s things.

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