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~ from Theresa Allender in Seattle, Washington

How to Desensitize Skin

Question:“My four-year-old has a super sensitive body. She is uncomfortable with kisses and hugs, she will only wear certain clothes because of how they feel, she is the same about shoes, it’s uncomfortable for her to have her head washed, etc. I was wondering if I could desensitize her to make her more comfortable in her skin.

Also, is this hypersensitive body related to her inability to hear others around her sometimes? For example, it seems like she is blocking people out on purpose but she is genuinely startled to be tapped on the shoulder or yelled at for not responding.”


Thanks for writing in, Theresa! It sounds like your daughter has tactile and auditory hypersensitivity. Sensory processing difficulties are very difficult to pinpoint without an assessment. Even with an assessment, many children’s sensory issues change from morning to night, day to day, or season to season. What bothers them one day may not bother them the next. Your daughter sounds pretty consistent, which may be helpful in figuring out how to help her. In terms of “desensitizing” her, you could try massage. A friend of mine is a Massage Therapist and she happens to work with children. She says that gentle massage every night, after a bath, would really help the desensitization process. You know what your daughter can tolerate, but start slow and gentle with some lotion. She said that one very important thing is to decrease the time significantly for a child. Start with five to ten minutes, if she can tolerate it, and then try to increase it. Even 20 to 30 minutes total is a great accomplishment and will help to start the desensitization process. You could try some lavender or pleasant-smelling lotion if you think she would like it. If not, go plain. If you already do this, systematically make your massage a little longer. Then, you can try pressing more firmly, etc. If she has very sensitive spots, avoid them. After you brush her hair, you could gently massage her scalp while you talk to her. If the massage becomes ok, you can “step it up” by using a soft washcloth for the massage or follow up the lotion with a “drying” massage with a towel or soft cloth.

Pediatric massage can help improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and improve aversion to touch. It’s also great for improving the parent/child bond.

As for the second part of your question, children who are hypersensitive to auditory stimuli may appear not to hear you because they don’t hear you. Children who have auditory hypersensitivity will hear every little thing around them, which may limit them from hearing something closer. Leaves blowing outside, the sirens blowing two blocks away, or the hum of the air conditioner are competing with the voice of Mom. All of these background noises can be hard for a child with auditory hypersensitivity to “tune out.” This means that these background noises may be equal or more pronounced than closer noises, like mom calling her name, so it makes it hard for her to respond at times. Often, children learn how to self-modulate so that they can “tune out” the background stuff. If it’s really impacting her, you could consider a “Therapeutic Listening” program. You would need to find a therapist who is certified in it, but it seems pretty cool. Check out this link for more info:

Or you could look at this YouTube Video to get an idea of what it’s all about: 

Thanks for taking the time to “Ask an OT”! If my readers have any other advice for Theresa & her beautiful daughter Maya, please comment!

~  Miss Jaime, OT

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