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What is going on when my child constantly touches stuff that is off limits or fidgets with things until they are destroyed? Sometimes she even picks at her body until she bleeds. How do I address it?

Image courtesy of stockimages | www.freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages | www.freedigitalphotos.net

There could be a couple factors.

Some children were never in a safe enough place to be curious. Many children from hard places are less than half their physical age developmentally and cognitively. The constant touching could be pure curiosity. In this case, provide the same level of supervision you would for a toddler and don’t be surprised if your child gets into inappropriate things when you’re not looking. Provide lots of opportunities where exploring through touching is acceptable.

Constant touching could just be your child’s behavior telling you that she needs a fidget. There may be a sensory need that needs to be met, but in a more appropriate way. In addition, some children with sensory processing disorder do not understand how much force they are exerting so may not be able to tell if they are handling something with care. A comprehensive OT evaluation can help identify your child’s sensory needs.

Restlessness is unfortunately another way trauma and anxiety present in children. This nervous energy often comes out through the hands and cause children to impulsively touch even though they know better. Baths, extended exhales, exercise, and use of essential oils can all help overall anxiety. Working with a professional who specializes in attachment and trauma can also help children process experiences so they do not create so much anxiety.

There is also a situation where a child sabotages his belongings because he does not feel worthy of having anything. Again, working with a professional to process this can be helpful.

Because this behavior is about much more than just touching, there are no quick fixes and punishments will likely not be effective. Remember to focus on creating felt safety for your child as that connection will help correct the behavior from the root cause. Of course, encouragement when your child resists the urge to reach out and touch is important as well.

No matter the underlying cause (and it’s likely a combination of the above), it’s important to not let the situation control you. Adjust your expectations. Rather than being upset that your child ruined yet another toy, only give your child items you are comfortable with him destroying. One mom suggests items normally tossed in the recycle bin make excellent “toys.” Engineer situations so that your child is always directly supervised even if you think she is “old enough” to follow the rules.

What other things do you think might help your child with “sticky fingers”?

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