The touching, the pushing, the in-your-face talking.
Some kids really struggle with personal space and body awareness.
It can be super annoying, embarrassing, and hurt your child’s chances at making friends.
How do sensory needs factor in? And what can you do to help them?
Why do they get so close?
Kids with sensory issues can have various needs in different areas. Some seek out sensory input in one area, while avoiding it in another. If you child is struggling with personal space, consider if they might be seekers in either the tactile sense or the proprioceptive sense.
Tactile seekers may be constantly wanting to touch others because their body is craving a certain type of input. Some kids love to stroke hair, others obsessively pinch, still others like to fiddle with other’s bracelets, rings etc. It could be anything, but the key is to recognize the behavior as not purposefully annoy, but rather an actual need that the child is trying to meet in a socially inappropriate way.
Proprioceptive seekers are the kids who’s body is not giving them enough sensory input through their joints and ligaments. Instead of feeling secure, weighted and aware of their body, it feels a litle more like their floating in space. So they crave touch, STRONG touch. These are the kids who crash into everything, hug too hard, are rough without being mean, etc. They are often clumsy, due to their poor body awareness and bump into people a lot, often completely unaware.
What to do about it
If you suspect your child’s needs are tactile related, try meeting those needs in more appropriate ways. Do sensory bins before school, give them a favorite textured fidget toy to keep in their pocket. If they love to touch people’s hair, give you child a regular time when that would be acceptable (let your child play hairdresser with you every night before bed).
It’s also essential to give your child lots of proprioceptive activities throughout the day. No matter your child’s needs, proprioceptive input promotes self-regulation and aids the brain in handling sensory signals correctly.
If you think your child’s personal space issues are body awareness related, practice those proprioceptive activities religiously! Read about 8 easy ways to help your sensory seeker get their energy out.
On top of a regular diet of jumping, climbing, pushing and pulling, consider games that will help your child become more aware of their body. Play a version of “Simon Says” when your child has to mimic poses you take. This can be extremely challenging for a child that is a proprioceptive seeker.
Kids with sensory issues tend to not pick up on a lot of social cues naturally. They don’t get it automatically like others because they have other challenges that are vying for their attention. While a neurotypical child may sense when a favorite Aunt has had enough with the touching, a sensory child is likely to miss that emotional clue in the adults face since they are focused on their legitimate need to get sensory input.
Guys, I’m learning this the hard way!
I wish they’d just get it without me having to teach them seemingly simple things, over and over and over again! But that is not my reality and my child needs more from me. I have to verbally teach them social situations, not just model them.
Run Through Scenarios
A great way to help your child with personal space is to run through pretend scenarios. Every situation is different, and the more ways you practice the better the chances your child can handle them in an appropriate way.
Example: maybe you taught your child to keep an arm’s length distance from their classmates. But then you child finds themselves being told to wait in a line, at a much closer proximity. If you’re run through multiple scenarios, they’ll be better able to adjust and not simply see everything in black and white.
Have a Secret Signal
Child who lack body awareness or seek tactile input are not misbehaving. So when they “cross the line” with personal space, instead of publicly shaming or embarrassing them, have a secret code word or phrase that can remind them to adjust their body so others are more comfortable.
When my son starts hugging others too hard, I just blurt out “prickly pear” and my son knows just what to do. He feels like it’s a fun secret game and I know it’s better for his confidence to not be constantly corrected.
Have more questions??? Check out this wildly popular series of Sensory FAQs and become a more confident sensory parent today!