Everything You Need to Know About Your Child’s Tactile System

Our sense of touch is our largest sensory stem and can lead us to ask the question “Why is my kid doing that?” quite often.  I want to share everything you ever wanted to know about your child’s tactile system to help you as you play detective trying to figure out the “Why?”

I want to share with you why some kids love to touch everything (tactile seeking), why some kids seem bothered by touch (tactile defensiveness), and tips and tricks to help in both cases.


What is the tactile system?

I already mentioned this is our largest sensory system which makes sense because the information is gathered through our largest organ–our skin. Picky eater…don’t forget we have skin on the inside of our mouth!

This system processes information regarding touch, temperature, texture, and vibration. The tactile system has two subsystems which is important to understand because they play an important role in behavior.

Discriminative system

This system gives us information regarding the qualities of a tactile stimulus as to whether it is hot or cold, soft or hard, giving us deep or light pressure, bumpy or smooth, painful or pleasant, etc.  When this system is intact, we can hold an object in our hand and, without seeing it, be able to figure out what it is simply by feeling the physical properties of it.

This system also plays an important role in the development of fine motor skills. We must understand the tactile information we are receiving from the object we are holding in order to properly manipulate it.

Protective system

The protective system responds to light touch and is called the protective system because it’s job is to keep up safe and warn us of danger.

This is important to know because light touch will usually set off our body’s protective warning system.  The reason being, it is connected to the part of our nervous system that puts us into “fight, fright, or flight” mode with perceived or real danger. We touch something sharp, feel a spider crawling up our leg, or touch a hot stove, this system will kick our “fight, fright, or flight” mode in to high gear to make us quickly move our hand or swat at the spider.

Think about if you’ve ever seen blue lights flashing in your rear-view mirror.  Not that I have (wink, wink) but I’m guessing when you do, you act quickly by slamming on the brakes, start breathing heavily, and possibly even start sweating.  This is exactly what light touch can do to us.

How our children’s sensory systems work

I often compare our children’s sensory systems to coffee cups.

If you are a coffee drinker, you will get this!

Monday morning prior to coffee, I know I personally am not ready to focus.  I’m not at what we call in the OT world, my “optimum level of arousal”.  I am hypoaroused.

Too many cups of coffee and I’m no good either.  I can get jittery, my heart starts to race, and I am crawling out of my own skin. No way can I focus.  I’m hyperaroused.

Our children can work the same way.  Too little sensory input and they can’t focus, aren’t at their optimum level of arousal, and are seeking it out any which way they can.

Too much sensory input and they can’t focus, aren’t at their optimum level of arousal, may feel anxious and shut down, and will avoid more sensory input.

Back to the tactile system

Tactile seeking

“Stop touching everything!”  If you find yourself sounding like a broken record repeating that phrase, you may have a tactile seeker on your hands. You may have a child who needs more and more and more and is seeking it out in order to get to their optimum level of arousal.

A few behaviors you may see are:

  • Touches everything
  • Repeatedly touches objects or textures that they might find soothing (a favorite blanket or stuffed animal)
  • Seeks out messy play
  • Plays with their food
  • Seems unaware of cuts, bumps, bruises

In this case, we need understand why they are doing what they are doing, help THEM to understand why they are doing what they are doing, and make sure they have appropriate ways to get more tactile input.

How do I help my tactile seeker?

You provide lots and lots of opportunities to explore textures with their hands and to get their hands dirty. Work with them to help them understand what are and are not appropriate outlets for touch. They may benefit from some kind of textured fidget (see below) to carry with them, as well.

Tactile defensiveness

You may see obvious signs that your child doesn’t like tactile input. For example, you may have a child who:

  • Avoids getting their hands dirty
  • Doesn’t like to sit on your lap or get hugs or kisses from relative
  • Is a picky eater
  • Complains about seams in socks, wearing a coat or hat, transitioning to pants in the winter, etc. (You can read more about that in my blog Tips to End Clothing Battles with Your Kids.)

Remember back to what I mentioned earlier about light touch and the protective system.  It is thought that children with tactile defensiveness pay more attention to messages from the protective touch pathway then children without a tactile sensitivity. This means that touch (and especially light touch) can be very noxious to them and kick them in to “fight, flight, or fright” mode leading them to act in a way that seems inappropriate or out of proportion to the stimulus.

The tricky part is, they don’t realize this and often cannot communicate this.  It is our job to see that when anxiety arises, a meltdown occurs, or there is an extreme avoidance, that there may be something more to it.

We must play detective to find the root of a behavior and help them to start to see this, as well. Self-awareness is always the goal, but it takes time to get there!

How do I help my child with tactile defensiveness?

Tactile defensiveness can often improve quite dramatically through exposure and exploring and playing with different textures.  With that said, do not ever force it.  Remember “fight, fright, or flight”? The last thing we want to do is kick them in to that mode.  Let them feel safe and in control but gently expose and encourage them.

Deep pressure can also be a great tool to use with a child who has tactile defensiveness because it can help override the “fight, flight, or fright” response. Because of this, deep pressure can be great to use prior to, during, and after an activity that may spark a negative reaction by your child.  For example, use deep pressure prior to walking on the beach or in the grass or having to put that much loathed socks on.

Deep pressure techniques can be done many different ways but should always be done lovingly.  A few ideas for deep pressure input are:

  • Hugs
  • Deep muscle massages
  • Foot massages
  • Pressure down through the shoulders
  • Firmly rubbing a rubber playground ball down their back while they are lying on their stomach
  • Pillow sandwich (place a pillow on top of your child and then gently lie on top of the pillow with your child being on the bottom of the sandwich-only apply as much pressure as they can tolerate)

If your child’s tactile defensiveness is interfering with their daily life, then call a local therapist to schedule an appointment.  You can get a sensory checklist to determine if your child would benefit from Occupational Therapy to address sensory needs.

Tactile play for all children

Let me start by saying that it is so important to let your kids get dirty.  It’s our mama instinct to stop them from doing so because all we see is the amount of laundry and stain removal that will have to be done.But it is such a necessary part of development so maybe look at it that way next time you are cringing about putting your superhero mom stain remover cape on.

As you proceed with tactile play, dry textures are least offensive so begin there and move on towards wet and messy play.

  • Rice bowl activities– Fill a large bowl, shoe box, or plastic bin shoe box size or larger with uncooked rice and put hidden treasures init for your child to dig out.  You can also use dry pasta, corn, or beans.
  • sensory binFidgets– The best fidgets will have different tactile qualities that are pleasing to your child. You can often find these in the dollar section of Target or at Michael’s but some ideas would be: fidget cubes, fidget spinners, stress balls (make one using an unblown balloon and cooking flour or sand), puffer balls, Rubik’s cube, stretch toys, light up spinning toys.
  • Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty
  • PlaydoughYou can even make your own
  • Tactile box– Fill a large box (Appliance boxes work great.) with stuffed animals, sponges, foam pieces, soft blankets, etc. and have your child lie in it.sensory bin
  • Foaming hand soap or shaving cream-Squirt soap or shaving cream on a cookie sheet and go to down. Write letters, draw pictures or shapes, or vroom toy cars in it.  If your child is aversive to this, have them start off by using a foam paint brush to draw in it.
  • Bathtub paint
  • Sandbox play
  • Make homemade slime
  • Make mudpies outside
  • Sensory bins
  • Orbeez

I hope that is everything you wanted to know about your child’s tactile system and so much more.  Actually, there is a little bit more to know but you can check that out in my book if you would like to learn more. Tactile play can be so much fun so remember, let your kids get dirty!  It’s good for them.

Cindy Utzinger

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