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Why Won’t My Child Wear Clothes?

Maybe your child prefers to be naked? Do they refuse socks and shoes? Won’t wear a coat even when it is cold? Perhaps they only have one shirt and pair of pants they consistently wear, and you’re wondering–what will you do when they outgrow it!?

How we feel

There are many ways issues with clothing come up for children with sensory processing disorder (SPD). The way a child takes in, processes, and interprets the sensory input they receive can alter the way a child tolerates or does not tolerate certain things, such as clothing. 

The feel of our clothes on our body refers to the tactile input we are receiving. Tactile is touch-it’s the way things feel. 

Some people can be overly sensitive (hypersensitive) and others may not be as sensitive (hyposensitive). 

Let’s look at some ways that clothing issues might come up: 

  • Wearing jeans may feel fine to some, but for others, they may feel stiff and scratchy.
  • One child may want tight-fitting shirts or leggings, another may only tolerate loose and baggy fitting clothes. 
  • Hats may be preferred by a child that seeks input or pressure on their head. Fot another they may be very uncomfortable and intolerable. 
  • One child may want something on their feet all the time, others may pull shoes and socks off as soon as they can. 

There are so many different fabric textures and often children are drawn towards soft or silky materials. For the kids who are more sensitive to touch, these tend to be more tolerable for them.

Of course, there are many other ways children may or may not wear clothing, these are just a few examples.

The hypersensitive child

If a child avoids touch (hypersensitive) they may struggle with getting dressed in the morning, changing into their PJs at night, and might want to remove clothing whenever possible. They are more sensitive to the way things feel. 

Getting back to the question: “Why won’t my child wear clothes?

Well, one way to think about this is that their tactile system never turns off telling them they are being touched by their clothing. 

Right now as you read this, you are receiving input from your shirt, pants, socks, and shoes. Your system is receiving this input but you are not overly bothered by it (hopefully). Your sensory system receives the input and says, ‘Yep, you’re still wearing a shirt, no need to alert her,’ and moves on. But for a child that is overly sensitive to touch, their system continues saying to them, ‘Hey you have a shirt on, the tag is tickling your neck, don’t forget that seem of the sock is rough.’ As you could imagine this can become quite an annoyance. 

How to help

How do you help your hypersensitive child tolerate clothing more? As you know wearing clothes is an expected part of our culture and you want them to be able to go to school, play in the park, get a job? But you worry how will they do all these things if they are always naked!?

Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but for some, it’s reality. I have met families that tell me they rarely leave the house with their child because clothing is such an issue, and this puts so many limitations on life. 

The best place to start is with a sensory diet. A sensory diet is a way to help regulate the sensory systems. You can use them to help prepare for a challenging task, such as getting dressed, as well as improve overall sensory regulation and processing. 

For the child that is more sensitive to touch, we want to find the right balance of challenging them and being successful. We call this the ‘just right challenge.’

Working to introduce and play with different textures is a great way to help the tactile system learn to process touch better.

Examples:

  • Skin brushing
  • Shaving cream play
  • Sensory bins with rice, beans, lentils, sand, water, or popcorn
  • Finger painting
  • Kneading dough or making cookies
  • Playing dress-up
  • Using different sponges, loofas, and washcloths in the bath

Make it a sucess!

Working to desensitize to touch is the goal, but you want to approach it gradually. Presenting an activity that is too challenging and not tolerated by the sensory system most likely will shut your child down and it will be difficult to get them to participate. 

Find ways to adapt activities for your child to succeed. For example, if your child would not tolerate shaving cream on their hands try it in the bathtub where they can quickly dip their hands in the water to clean them. When kneading dough or finger painting, start by wearing gloves. If needed use spoons or tongs to initiate play in a rice bin gradually working to get more of their hands in there!

Remember a sensory diet can also help prepare for a more difficult task. Try doing some quick helicopter spins, bear walks, skin brushing, and/or joint compressions before getting dressed to help regulate the sensory system to allow for greater success. 

Compression clothing provides proprioceptive input and for some children, the deep pressure from a compression shirt can make dressing a bit easier. If your child responds well to deep pressure it may be worth trying. 

Sensory play should be fun. Remember to meet your child where they are at and with gradual and consistent exposure you will notice improvements in their sensory processing. 

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