Who needs a hug? Proprioception: better than it sounds

By Macaile Hutt

Picture this: you’ve had a really stressful day at work (or school or playing referee to fighting children or chauffeur to and from school and soccer practice and piano and — well, you get it). You walk into the front door to see your husband (or wife, or child, or mother, or dog) waiting in the doorway for you. What is your natural instinct? Oftentimes, our bodies melt into the comfort that is standing in the doorway and we lean in for a tight, much needed hug. Suddenly, even if just for a moment, the stresses of our day feel a little less heavy as we exhale into the comfort that this hug delivers.

What most of us don’t realize is that this attempt to find comfort is actually seeking something that goes beyond the touch of a loved one. When we hug someone, we are also receiving what the therapy world calls “proprioceptive input.”

Proprioception, in simple terms, is our body’s ability to know where it’s at in space. It combines our body awareness with our spatial awareness, and allows us to get in tune with where we’re at in the world from the inside out. When someone gives us a tight squeeze or a firm hug, all of those touch receptors communicate with our brain as our lungs exhale, “Ahhh, there I am. I’ve felt disorganized and chaotic all day, but now I finally feel exactly where I am.”

Our children often seek this input when they are overwhelmed or over-stimulated. This might look like a bull in a china cabinet, destroying everything in its path. It might look like the child that always needs to be pressed up against you, whether you’re sitting on the couch at home, in line at the grocery store, or playing at the park. Seeking proprioception might also disguise itself as aggression, as children don’t often know how to verbalize what it is that they’re seeking when they body slam brother or push another child at school.

Our need for proprioceptive input comes in all shapes and sizes and is often mistaken for something else. But once we learn to identify what our child’s needs are, we are better able to meet those needs in a positive way.

Why do we need it? Our bodies are constantly trying to reach a state of homeostasis, or balance, and our worlds are often very disorganizing and disruptive to that attempt. Loud noises, bright lights, lots of other people, or changes in routine all pose as a threat to our internal balance and, in turn, cause our bodies to seek input that is grounding and regulating. Sometimes all we need is a little dose of proprioceptive input and our bodies are recharged and ready to take on the challenges that we are currently facing.

So, how do we get it? Proprioceptive input is my personal favorite form of input, and there are many ways that I like to give and receive it, the first being the above mentioned method: hugs. Hugs, head squeezes, pressure provided by “squishing” with an exercise ball, or even giving input by patting on a child’s back or rolling them up tightly in a blanket all provide proprioceptive input the same way our bodies receive a hug. Weighted and compression vests, and weighted or compression blankets, all provide this type of grounding and regulating input, as well.

Another way we receive proprioceptive input is through joint compression or joint distraction. The interesting thing about this input is that it’s achieved through opposite motions but often elicits the same result — how cool is that? Joint compression is performed by holding each side of a joint (for example, placing one hand at the base of the thigh and one hand just below the knee and lightly pressing your hands together; this compression can be performed at the elbows, ankles, wrists, and even the small joints of the fingers and toes). Children can also create this feeling themselves by jumping, wheelbarrow walking, crab walking, or lying on their tummies and propping themselves up on bent arms, providing compression at the shoulder joint, which can be very calming.

The opposing motion, joint distraction, is performed by pulling lightly at the joints. This can be done manually, in the opposite motion of the joint compression. Often, a child responds well to a combination of both movements, for example, lightly pushing and pulling at the toes, fingers, or even arms and legs. Remember, small movements can create big feelings, so try it on yourself first and be gentle in your approach. We don’t want to push or pull too hard, just enough to “wake up” the joints and help them receive feedback as to where they are in space.

Children also receive joint distraction when they hang from monkey bars and tree branches, or even when they pull at your arms, legs, or on heavy door handles. If you pause to think about the different types of proprioceptive input and the way we receive them, it’s usually pretty easy to detect the ways in which your child prefers to receive this input and the effect it has on his or her overall regulation and state of being calm or alert.

Incorporating proprioception into your everyday life:

Adding small bursts of proprioceptive input (for kids) can make a big difference in the long run. Once we begin incorporating these tools, it almost becomes second nature. Some of my favorite ways to incorporate proprioceptive input in our daily lives include:

1. Hopping with feet “glued together” from the parking lot to the store.

2. Wheelbarrow walking to and from a task that is sometimes fear or anxiety inducing (doctor, dentist, chores, being expected to sit for extended periods of time).

3. Having a child outstretch his arms and hold your hands while facing you, and then you both press into one another simultaneously. The child can press as hard as he can and release energy and “wiggles” while remaining completely in one place.

4. Holding a child by the wrists and lightly “shaking the wiggles out” from her arms by providing joint compression and distraction to the shoulders, elbows, and wrists all at once. This can be performed to the legs while the child lies on her back as well.

5. Jumping jacks, hop scotch, bunny hops, bear walks, crab walks, etc.

6. Instructing a child to perform five “chair push-ups” when feeling overwhelmed or over-stimulated in an environment where he is expected to remain seated. This occurs by holding onto the armrests of the chair and “pushing up” to extended arms while seated and then relaxing. Repeat until the wiggles are gone.

7. Placing a small elastic band, exercise band, or theraband around the front two legs of the child’s chair so she can place her feet behind the band and kick against it while sitting. The child can also place feet on top of the band and bounce legs while remaining calm and seated and refraining from distracting others.

8. Pushing or pulling a basket filled with a couple books or another object that adds weight. The “pulling” motion can be achieved by looping a belt or a rope through the basket to assist with the pulling.

9. Light massage can be performed for a similar response that joint compression can elicit.

10. Blankets and pillows can be piled into a corner of the house for safe “crashing.”

While this information can be confusing or overwhelming at first, our children often know their bodies and needs better than we do. By tuning into the signals they are sending us about their needs, as well as paying attention to the ways in which they attempt to meet those needs on their own, we can help them happily and successfully achieve a calm state of regulation that allows them to be their best selves. I’ve found that without even realizing it, I am often seeking to receive this input myself.

Proprioceptive input is a great addition to our box of tools when raising strong, resilient kiddos. Happy hugging!

Macaile Hutt is an occupational therapist in Boise, as well as a writer and contributor for The Sensory Project. Her therapy style takes a holistic and child-directed approach, with the goal of children succeeding across multiple environments. She holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy from A.T. Still University and has received continuing education in Handwriting Without Tears, pediatric kinesiotaping, Interactive Metronome, and Beckman Oral Motor. She is co-owner of the company Human Code, a candle and retail company with a larger purpose of promoting kindness and generosity. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing, backpacking, and traveling.

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