I’m openly tactile defensive. Even though my tolerance of certain things on my hands have improved, I don’t actively seek to get my hands dirty regularly. That is, until my bestie and fellow blog writer suggests we go to the SlooMoo Institute for a playdate (enter cringe mode).
Here’s the thing: Even though going to an immersive slime exhibit isn’t something I’d want to do, I knew my 5-year-old would enjoy it. Why miss a new experience for him because I can’t handle a little slime on my hands…or clothes. Agh, I digress.
This post isn’t about me or my dislikes, but rather how many parents do things we avoid, fear, or loathe for the sake of our kids. It’s very common that some parents don’t want their kids to inherit their own phobias, and they especially don’t want their kids to miss out. Whatever the reason, we know that we play a large role in our children’s learning and growing experiences.
Watch and Learn
One way your child learns is through observation of their environment and the people within it (observational learning). They watch us, retain the information, and later duplicate our actions. This explains why your child may grab their pretend cup of coffee, phone, planner, and laptop and imitate your entire morning routine to a tee.
Your mini-me might also be picking up on your quirks. For example, you may HATE avocado. Any time it is placed in front of you, you show disdain for it, push it off to the side, make a face, etc. Your little one may be watching your response and without even trying it, will express his dislike for it as well.
A couple years ago, I noticed my son picking up my tactile defensiveness. We played in a sandbox for a bit, but once I showed my uncomfortability towards it (making faces, frequently wiping my hands, constantly saying “ew” or “bleh”), he began to do it as well. Any substance I didn’t want on my hands, he didn’t want on his hands. My touch issues literally started to rub off on him. Because of my lead, he was learning that certain textures/feels were “bad”; when in reality, they were harmless and perhaps quite fun.
In addition to watching and modeling our behaviors, kids learn by doing. Consequently, activities that engage multiple sensory systems are more likely to be remembered and considered meaningful. Experiential learning, as it’s referred to, allows for our kids to be in the driver’s seat of their own learning, problem-solving through trial-and-error. It also helps them determine what they enjoy and what they don’t. But how can they learn if the opportunity was never presented to them in the first place? You can’t learn from experience if you never had the chance.
Let’s go back to the avocado example. If you dislike it so much that it’s never in the house, then chances of your child engaging with one are limited. They won’t know the feel of it, the smell, the taste, touch, etc. Then, they get really confused and curious when a classmate brings guacamole in their lunch one day.
A long time ago, I restricted my son’s ability to play with various things, not just because of my hyperresponsive touch system, but because I didn’t want to deal with the mess. Yes, he would have Play-Doh, Kinetic Sand, and slime at the ready, but once he engaged in messy play with them (which is typical, btw), I would immediately clean it up and shelve them until I was mentally prepared to handle the sensory chaos again. It would be weeks until those items saw the light of day again. So pair my own tactile issues, plus the limited amount of time spent exploring different textures in an independent positive setting, and you get the beginning of a tactile defensive kid. NOOOOO!!!!!!!!
Break the Cycle
As parents, we can be pretty set in our ways, until it comes to our kids. Introverted parents put themselves out there to meet new people so their kids can make new friends and develop confident social skills. Parents who prefer to be nowhere near the water enroll their children into swim classes to prevent those fears from being passed down. And parents with sensory sensitivities provide as many opportunities as possible for their kids to experience new types of tactile play.
It’s easy to say just go in headfirst and do it, but that would be sugar-coating the huge amount of effort required to overcome your own personal grievances. Here’s some suggestions to help start:
- To thine own self be true. Yes, I quoted Shakespeare, but it’s true. Knowing what makes you feel uneasy or what you actively steer clear from helps you realize what opportunities your child may be missing out on (or has a skewed perspective of). This allows you to become self-aware and open to changing your own behaviors, or at least what you would want for your kiddo. For me, I didn’t want my kid to freak out at every substance that he came into contact with.
- Be honest. If your child expresses an activity that you’re not about (like going down the 3-story slide), communicate those feelings to them. You can tell them that if they’d like to go down that slide, you will be at the bottom (a set boundary, but a sign of support and allowing them the chance to do it). If you’re trying to build up your own tolerance, you can slide with them on all the slides leading up to it and (if you’re ready), try to do the big one. By doing this, you’re modeling the action of trying new things even if it’s uncomfortable.
- Easy does it. Things that you’ve been avoiding your whole life aren’t going to be easy to overcome. Give yourself grace and start small.
Don’t like stuff on your hands? Try playing in a sensory bin filled with rice because it doesn’t stick to your skin and it’s relatively easy to clean up.
Have trouble talking to new people? Bring your outgoing friend with you the next time you go to the playground with your kids. Trust me, they’ll do the majority of the work and through observational and experiential learning (see what I did there?), you may pick up some techniques to make another outing easier.
Fast forward to my 5-year-old excited to go to the SlooMoo Institute with his friends. Yes, I said excited.
Once I realized he was picking up on my tactile defensive traits, I needed to nip my issues in the bud. We did messy play often, making sure I showed little to no negative reactions to it. As he got older, I shared my feelings of the substances we played, saying, “Buddy, I’m not really a fan of this. I don’t like how it feels on my hands. Do you like it?” He would oftentimes say yes and continue to do play with it long after I was done.
Nowadays, touching and interacting with various things no longer phase him and he’s completely fine getting dirty. I’m still not a fan of stuff getting on my hands and clothes, but I can tolerate more than before (that’s progress, right?).
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