My kid won’t stop touching people
July 29, 2021 4:48 PM   Subscribe

My seven-year-old son has very difficult time respecting other people’s personal space. How do I help him change his behavior?

When he gets around boys his age, he regularly tries to play fight or roughhouse. At school he grabs other boys’ arms or tries to jump on their backs. When he’s around his teachers he tries to hug them or stand next to them and lean on them. His go-to interaction with his 4-year-old brother is holding/shoving/pulling on him. Today at swimming lessons his teacher had to repeatedly tell him to not hold her around her neck. It’s not just a phase. It’s been a problem since he started kindergarten (we had several parent-teacher conferences about it) and he’s going in to second grade this fall.

Being affectionate or wanting to physically interact with your peers is fine and normal. But I feel like being aware of how you’re physically interacting with the world and asking for consent are some of the the most important skills that a boy needs to learn.

He conceptually gets that what he’s doing isn’t ok. When he self-reports that he was grabbing or jumping on kids at school he talks about how he knows it’s wrong “but then I get crazy and I forget.”

We’ve tried several things. The first is positive reinforcement when he tells us that he had a good day and didn’t touch anyone. We give him lots of praise and we’ve tried rewarding him when he’s had multiple good days in a row. I’m not into shaming or trying to make him feel guilty about what he’s doing. We also tried mindfulness training in the hopes that it would help him identify those “crazy” times as they’re happening.

We’re affectionate with him at home while at the same trying to model good behavior. But that’s where I get conflicted. If he’s sad I don’t think he should have to ask his parent’s permission before getting hugged. Same if he wants to cozy up next to us while we’re reading him a bedtime story. But there has to be a way to get him to understand the difference between normal family affection and jumping on kids at school.
posted by not_the_water to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Apologies if this is outside the boundaries of the question, but has he been screened for ADHD?

I have ADHD, I've been diagnosed with it since I was your son's age, and this phrase stuck out at me: he talks about how he knows it’s wrong “but then I get crazy and I forget.”.

One of the hallmark issues with ADHD isn't just a lack of attention span - it's also executive dysfunction, and impulsivity. I wasn't a serial hugger and toucher, but I did have similar impulse control issues when I was his age. Basically, I was the Shouty Kid who grabbed the candy bars when at the grocery store, no matter times I was told not to do that. I knew not to grab them, I could tell you why grabbing them is wrong, and I understood the consequences of grabbing them. And I didn't like the punishments I got, when I did grab them. However, I did it anyway. My parents eventually resorted to not taking me to the grocery store at all, until I was much older.

When a non-ADHD person's brain takes a little time to think things through as to whether or not to do A Thing? Mine jumps from 0 - 100 immediately towards doing The Thing, without having spent the time reflecting whether or not I should have done The Thing in the first place. In my case? It was grabbing things when shopping. With yours? It might be hugging and touching.

I hope this makes sense, and feel free to PM me if you have questions.
posted by spinifex23 at 5:04 PM on July 29, 2021 [36 favorites]

You say you are modeling this behavior, but also that it makes you sad. I think maybe it would be helpful to reflect on that. I don't enjoy or appreciate a hug less because I've asked first if it's okay. If you get into the habit of asking your kids for consent for hugs, etc, then maybe it won't feel sad that you are asking him to also ask for consent (kids should get hugs from their parents, but it's also okay to ask. Let's say a parent really injured themselves for example; you'd totally want to ask for consent before touching that person, no?). There's a way to make this joyful. "Can I have a hug? Yes? Hurray!" Then, you know, hug.

But, it seems like this has gotten past that point. Because this: “but then I get crazy and I forget.”

As soon as I read that, I thought exactly what spinifex did: it might be time for an ADHD screening. Impulsive behavior is a hallmark. At the very least, some of the tips for ADHD kids might be helpful for yours in managing this.

One thing that can help kids with impulsive behaviors is more exercise. Does he have a chance to really be active and move around before he's in school for the day.

Also, I am very concerned about the roughhousing with the 4 year old. How are you all dealing with that? It's really not okay to be pulling on and shoving a younger sibling.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:14 PM on July 29, 2021 [9 favorites]

Your description suggests ADHD to me, too. It takes WORK by the the adults around a child to modify behavior, and it needs everybody on board in the same way. Your description sounds much like my ADHD child was at that age, if perhaps yours might be a step or two more impulsive. Maybe. Those first couple of years of public school were ROUGH. As in, phone calls every other day from the school, minimum. (I was also a single parent, so at home, at least, he had ONE set of expectations... I've noticed that even parents who are on the same page sometimes don't succeed as well as they hope. Single parenting was easier, in a great many ways, than having a partner whose style differed even slightly.)

My son also had a kindergarten teacher (along with our family doctor) who compassionately suggested that he might be much more successful as a homeschool student. (Most teachers at the elementary school my kids attended were very pro-homeschool; some were homeschooling their own, despite teaching in a public school.) It took a couple more years before I was able to make that leap, and it was on behalf of my high-functioning autistic child that I did so. The ADHD child talked me into letting him stay in public school until middle school; in hindsight, we've all declared that a huge mistake.
posted by stormyteal at 7:00 PM on July 29, 2021

But there has to be a way to get him to understand the difference between normal family affection and jumping on kids at school.

Your kid is already telling you that they know the difference and that school is off limits for touching. They feel bad about it. Believe them. But for some reason they are unable to hold that in the moment.

Now he might not be able to conceptualize that with his younger brother which is a different relationship and might be a way to work with him.

When thinking about this, an ADHD framework might be useful regardless if he actually has it or not. There are ways to help him try to pause and practice, there are ways to help him get into routines. Continuing to spend some time with your kids talking about what's happening before he goes "crazy" in his words may help identify when he is having the problem (is he excited? Is he bored? Does it feel random to him?) Parents and teachers can be reflective towards a kid such as I notice when you are being active at sports you have more trouble with touching when your asked not to or whatever it may be. He may or not agree but it might be a useful thing to help him learn how to describe his own experiences. Regardless, If that's the case, doing an activity where he is a bit separated from his peers like baseball or tennis or golf might be easier for him at the moment than swimming class . Structuring your child life in a way that helps him succeed is perfectly okay!

I know this is really hard. I think a professional consult would really benefit you and help get some examples of things that you can do as a parent and him as a kid to move forward from this point .
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:21 PM on July 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

“ The first is positive reinforcement when he tells us that he had a good day and didn’t touch anyone.”

But it’s ok to touch and hold your friends if they’re ok with it! (And figuring out that consent is important too!) If your friend likes physical touch and you want to lean on each other or flop all over the place together in the reading corner (as long as you’re doing your reading) that’s ok!

His day doesn’t have to be free from touch, it has to be free from people who don’t want to be touched (or touched in that way- like the swim instructor). Redirection is great- “you can’t hold me around my neck because that’s hurts me and puts us both in danger in the water but if you get nervous you can grab my upper arm” or “swim to the wall and then I’ll come to you.”

He can cuddle his brother, but hitting is not ok! He can have a hug from his parents anytime, but asking first is good because sometimes the situation isn’t safe (while cooking for example). It doesn’t mean any of these people love him any less.

I can’t speak to the adhd part, but just as a touchy person myself, it’s hard to imagine that other people don’t derive the same pleasure or happiness that I do. Not hugging folks almost feels like I’m depriving THEM. And that’s a hard but good lesson for a kiddo, that other people may feel differently about something you love.

Good luck, it sounds like your kid just has big feelings that they’re trying to express
posted by raccoon409 at 8:55 PM on July 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I just want to jump in quickly and say thanks for all the ADHD comments. It’s on our radar but overall he exhibits almost no other typical symptoms. He’s not abnormally inattentive or hyperactive. He’s not overly distracted. He focuses on school work. The only time he shows any abnormal impulsiveness is when he’s being overly physical with other people.
posted by not_the_water at 8:56 PM on July 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So what physical things are you getting him to do instead of touching people?

You know when your kids touch things in shops how you get them to hold their own hands behind their backs so that they know where their hands are and they can feel their own hands holding onto each other and that way they don't forget and they stay aware? What is he doing physically to stay aware of where his arms are and where his body is in relation to other people so that he doesn't wrap his arms around them and doesn't bring his torso too close to them? Other wise as soon as he is distracted he's going to be doing it.

A lot of kids they can be aware of what one hand is doing but not the other hand, so while they carry a mug of hot chocolate nice and level so they don't spill it, they let the plate with the cookies in the other hand tilt and drop cookies all over the carpet. Many kids they can know where their hands are, or where their feet are but not both. Your kid would probably benefit from a lot of complex gross motor activities like crawling, climbing ladders, going through obstacle courses, dance, martial arts, etc. This will help teach him body awareness.

Meanwhile get him to do things like mark the distance between him and other on the floor with his feet, or with his arms so he knows how to accurately estimate and be aware of distance. You want him to practice being aware when four feet away is turning into one foot away. He can use strategies like positioning himself so that he keeps a desk or a chair between himself and the teacher, or finding a fixed spot to stand - if the teacher is standing in a certain position he can figure out how close is appropriate and perhaps go stand by the corner of the book case, or he could count floor tiles and stand on the fourth tile away.

Forgetting, then remembering and retreating back to the correct floor tile will be part of the learning process and will count as a success.

It is worth figuring out if he is strongly craving deep pressure sensations - the kind of touch you get when you roll on the ground or wrap yourself up tightly in something or get a hug, or wrestle. A lot of people find this sensation extremely grounding and very effective for reducing anxiety, as well as something that produces oxytocin when they get it from contact with others, so it makes them feel happy and close to others. If this is happening with him, look for ways that he can get deep pressure sensations on his own or with the help of others on a predictable schedule without having to glomp on them - for example, if his teacher is willing to give him a big hug at the end of class, your son might be able to restrain himself from leaping on the teacher while class is going on.

Similarly, your sons friends might be delighted to wrestle during recess, and your son be able to control his urge to leap on them, if he knows that the wrestling match will begin as soon as they get onto the playground. It's not that he can't or shouldn't hold, shove or pull on his younger brother, it's that he needs to do it safely and when both of them want it - they could both have a ball if the time is right and there is room to play active games.

Your son might also be able to get deep pressure sensations by wearing a weighted vest, or even by holding an extremely heavy book or backpack. Get him a weighted blanket and see if it gives him some of the sensory experiences that he is seeking.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:21 PM on July 29, 2021 [22 favorites]

Jane the Brown's comment is what I came to say! I'm a play therapist, and when I see kids with the behaviors your kiddo has, I am assessing if an evaluation to determine if kiddo is experiencing sensory processing issues might be the ticket. It is called Occupational Therapy, and most folks access that referral through their primary care doctor or pediatrician. Feel free to message me if you have questions!
posted by fairlynearlyready at 11:06 PM on July 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

I'm just a layperson and I'm sure bad OTs exist, but the OTs I've ever worked with habe been... mind-alteringly pragmatic and non-judgmental towards making things work. Any things. However they work. Anywhere OTs are available and at all relevant, A+++ recommend.
posted by away for regrooving at 12:30 AM on July 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

With your update, I'm seconding sensory processing issues. Your kid sounds very much like my kid when he was that age. He just really needed to touch EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME including people and animals. Occupational therapy was a godsend for him, and for us.
posted by cooker girl at 6:50 AM on July 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

Yep, coming in to say OT evaluation and possible sensory stuff. There are SO many tools an OT can give your son (and you!) to help with this. OTs are the best, and have really really helped my son with (different) sensory issues and also given me a huge amount of help and confidence as a parent.
posted by bananacabana at 8:18 AM on July 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm an OT and I can almost guarantee you that this has something to do with sensory processing, specifically sensory seeking behavior. A skilled OT will be able to help you manage this.
posted by Amy93 at 8:02 PM on July 30, 2021

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