5 ways to help your child with tactile sensitivities

Common questions we get from parents is “my child doesn’t like the feeling of certain textures and won’t wear XYZ, what do I do?” along with “my child does not like having their hair brushed or haircuts, what do I do?”. If this sounds familiar to you and you hear yourself saying “yes, that’s my child”, we’ve come up with some great ideas here at OTFC Group to help you along the way with your child, that can be done at home, and made a little fun in the process.

Tactile sensitivities or what’s also known as tactile defensiveness is a common theme among children who experience sensory processing defensiveness. This refers to children who are hypersensitive to the sense of touch. This sensitivity can occur with certain fabrics on skin, tags on fabrics, food textures, receiving a hug, hair brushing or self-care tasks. It can also occur with specific actions such as messy play, outdoor nature play, play dough or paper and pencils.

Understanding your child’s sensory needs

It’s important to see and know the signs of tactical sensitivities and if you think your child may need extra support or even an assessment, that’s where we come in. We can help you determine the exact things you can do to make things like getting dressed easier, washing, and brushing hair that little bit easier, brushing teeth and in general the strategies to help you with those daily tasks.

Remember: you can’t always see growth, but it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

5 suggestions to support children with Tactile Sensitivities

  1. Encourage proprioceptive ‘deep pressure’ input (e.g., chair push ups, wall push ups, jumping, carrying heavy objects and push/pulling objects) prior to activities that require your child’s tactile input.
  2. Never force your child to touch objects that they dislike. Your child can observe the activity, participate with modifications, or touch the objects briefly and wash hands immediately. Progressively introduce elements of a texture or item, i.e., play with it nearby, try touching it with a tool (e.g., stick) use gloves to touch, touch a very small amount – then progressively more. Try and use items in a ‘play’ based approach, to reduce the pressure surrounding the textures.
  3. Always approach your child from the front or where they have a good view of who is approaching (e.g., use of a mirror can be a great tool to assist with this as well).
  4. Use a firm, gentle touch instead of light touch when you have contact with your child.
  5. Allow your child some control over how the tactile event will be undertaken. This is done by providing 2-3 choices. (e.g., ‘how much water? half a tub, a whole tub, up to the ankles?’).

Clever tactics you can do at home to assist with:

Washing Hair

  • Regularly massage your child’s scalp with fairly heavy pressure. Start with the full hand, just pressing on their head. Then slowly start using fingers. Make slow movements and use a fair bit of pressure. If your child does not tolerate your hands touching their head, get them to put their hands on their headfirst, then press your hands down on your child’s head, neck, and shoulders.
  • When your child is about to have their hair washed, cut, or combed, massage their head directly before.
  • When washing, use firm touch and slow movement with preferably the palm of your hand, not your fingers.
  • Use a mirror and verbal warnings to predict touch.
  • Follow up with an enjoyable experience and/or treat.

Brushing Hair

  • Use a hairbrush with a long head.
  • When brushing use firm strokes.
  • Brush in front of the mirror so that your child can predict when the brush is coming.
  • Use a conditioner to detangle as much as possible.
  • Cut hair as short as possible.

Brushing Teeth

  • Consider using a face cloth to “wipe” the teeth.
  • Apply pressure to the teeth and gums with your fingers before brushing
  • Use very mild flavoured toothpaste.
  • Use pressure touch
  • Try an electric toothbrush; the vibration might be calming
  • Sometimes finger toothbrushes can also be a great alternative to being with
  • Try joint compression to the head neck and shoulders in preparation for teeth brushing.

In general, light touch should be avoided and if your child is resisting, upset, or not actively participating you should stop the activity and start again a little later. If an activity is proving to be uncomfortable for your child try pairing it with firm pressure to try an avoid it being an uncomfortable activity.

For a little more help with your child’s tactile sensitivities, we’d love you to contact us for an appointment or assessment and at the same time have a look around our website while you’re here at OTFC.

We’re now based across three locations Adelaide CBD, Mile End and Parkside.

OTFC Group – We’re Influencing Lives. Creating Possibilities. Making a Difference

OTFC is a South Australian clinic-based service that is centrally located and services children and adolescents from birth through to 21 years of age both locally and nationally. Dedicated to providing a client focused approach where children and families feel validated in their concerns, supported in difficult times, encouraged to be proactive and inspired to facilitate change.


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