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Does Your Child Have Difficulty Keeping Their Hands to Themselves? Exploring the Sensory Components Affecting Social Interactions


As parents, we often observe our children’s behavior and wonder why they have difficulty keeping their hands to themselves, especially in social situations. While it is not uncommon for children to be curious and tactile in their exploration of the world around them, persistent difficulty with controlling impulsive behaviors might indicate underlying sensory challenges. As an occupational therapist, I am here to shed light on this issue and discuss how sensory components may play a significant role in your child’s actions, particularly in their social interactions.

Sensory Processing: The Foundation of Behavior and Social Skills

Sensory processing refers to how our nervous system receives and interprets information from our environment through our senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and movement). For most children, this process is seamless, allowing them to regulate their responses appropriately in social settings. However, some children experience sensory processing difficulties, known as sensory processing disorder (SPD), which can impact various aspects of their lives, including their ability to navigate social interactions.

Understanding the Sensory Seeker

Children with sensory processing difficulties may be classified as sensory seekers. These children actively seek sensory input and stimulation as a way to regulate their nervous systems and feel more grounded. The desire for tactile experiences, such as touching, hugging, or squeezing, is often heightened in sensory seekers. Consequently, they may have difficulty respecting personal boundaries and may frequently touch others or objects in their environment, leading to social challenges.

The Tactile System and Its Impact on Social Interactions

The tactile system is responsible for processing touch and pressure sensations. For children with sensory processing challenges, the tactile system can be either over-sensitive (hypersensitive) or under-sensitive (hyposensitive). Both conditions can lead to difficulties with social interactions and personal space.

1. Hypersensitivity: Children who are hypersensitive to touch may find certain textures or sensations overwhelming, causing them to avoid touch or become distressed when touched unexpectedly. In social situations, they might be hesitant to engage in physical contact, leading to difficulties in forming close friendships and understanding social norms around touch.

2. Hyposensitivity: Conversely, children who are hyposensitive seek out intense touch experiences to feel more connected to their surroundings. They may not feel touch as intensely as others, leading them to seek more tactile input to satisfy their sensory needs. This excessive touch-seeking behavior can result in difficulty respecting others’ personal space and may cause discomfort in social interactions.

Proprioceptive and Vestibular Systems: The Role of Movement in Social Situations

The proprioceptive and vestibular systems also play crucial roles in regulating sensory experiences and behavior, particularly in social situations.

1. Proprioceptive Seeking: Children with proprioceptive seeking behaviors may constantly seek out intense physical activities or pressure, such as rough play, squeezing, or hugging tightly. This behavior serves to provide sensory input that helps them self-regulate. However, in social settings, they might unintentionally invade others’ personal space or engage in physical interactions that are perceived as aggressive.

2. Vestibular Seeking: Children with vestibular seeking behaviors may have a strong need for movement and may exhibit fidgeting, spinning, or bumping into others. Their seeking behavior can sometimes lead to boundary violations and difficulties recognizing personal space, affecting their social interactions and relationships.

Addressing Sensory Challenges and Social Skills: How Occupational Therapy Can Help

If you suspect that your child’s difficulty with keeping their hands to themselves is related to sensory processing challenges, it’s crucial to address both the sensory aspects and the social skills deficits that may arise from them. Occupational therapy sessions can be tailored to address specific sensory needs and help children develop appropriate social skills.


Through play-based therapy and social skills training, occupational therapists can guide children in understanding social boundaries, appropriate touch, and how to interpret non-verbal cues. By combining sensory integration activities with social interaction practice, children can learn to regulate their sensory needs while respecting others’ personal space and fostering positive social relationships.


Understanding the sensory components behind your child’s difficulty in keeping their hands to themselves is essential for providing appropriate support and intervention, especially in social situations. Sensory processing challenges are not behavioral issues but rather neurological differences that can affect social interactions. By recognizing and addressing these sensory needs and their impact on social skills, we can help our children develop better self-regulation skills, navigate social interactions successfully, and thrive in their relationships. If you have concerns about your child’s sensory processing and social skills, consider consulting with an occupational therapist who can guide you through this journey of sensory discovery and social growth.

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