When kids have sensory issues with clothing it can be overwhelming, confusing, and exhausting. Learn why they may have a sensory sensitivity and how you can help them! Plus, ideas for sensory friendly clothing.
I’m standing in the kitchen trying to enjoy the hot coffee that just spit out of my Keurig and I wince when I hear my son, Isaac, crying in the distance. I realize that makes me sound like a horrible un-caring parent, but I know why he’s is crying before my foot even hits the first step to see what’s the matter.
Two minutes ago, he had just left the kitchen to get dressed for school, and it’s one of the first colder days of fall. That means he can’t wear shorts.
He hasn’t had a pair of pants on in months.
I was secretly hoping this wasn’t going to be a big deal, but as I climb the stairs, I take a deep breath to brace myself with loads of patience because I know what the scene will be when I open his bedroom door. And, it’s just as I expected. He’s standing there in his underwear hardly able to talk because he’s crying so hard.
I notice his pant drawer is open and a bunch of pairs are tossed out all over the floor.
I bend down in front of him and tell him to take a deep breath, as I finally understand what he’s repeating through his tears, “I can’t wear pants, I hate the way they feel on my legs.” Any compassion I was previously lacking is now quickly present. I give him a tight hug because he loves that, and then I say, “Don’t worry, we’ll work it out.”
In that moment, I don’t know exactly what the solution is, but I’ve got some ideas!
Does my Child Have Sensory Issues with Clothing?
This story about my son and I may sound all too familiar to you. The fact is that a lot of kids are particular about what kinds of clothing they wear. It could be their socks, pants, or a preference to wear no clothing at all!
This is quite different than the child that refuses to wear anything other than blue or to always be in a dress because they like to twirl.
What I’m talking about is way more than a style preference. Instead, it’s about refusing to wear clothing based on the way it feels. If your child is demanding to wear or not wear certain clothing because of a seam, particular fit, or type of fabric, then it’s likely because of their sensory system. Some might say they have sensory issues with clothing.
Now don’t hit the panic button, because that sounds kind of scary, but actually, this is quite normal and doesn’t necessarily mean that your child has something “wrong” with them.
Why Kids Have Sensory Issues with Clothing…
Each of us and every kid has a unique sensory system. We each have sensations that we like, don’t notice, and avoid. Some kids have more of those preferences than others. This all depends on their own individual brain, which is why it varies so much from person to person. Sensory issues with clothing become a concern when they start to interfere with a child’s ability to function in daily life. (Head over to “What is Sensory?” to learn more.)
In these cases, a child may have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), or other diagnoses like ADHD or Autism.
But, lots of kids, like my son, have a sensory sensitivity to certain types of textures and no diagnosis. Sensory issues with clothing are specifically related to our sense of touch or the tactile system. (Read more about the tactile sense.) For Isaac, his brain is getting so many signals that the pants are on his legs, that it’s hard for him to focus on anything else. He perceives this as uncomfortable and begins to cry at the thought of wearing those pants.
Most kids that have sensory issues with clothing will often react this way. In fact, it could even be full-out tantrums and total fits over a pair of socks.
As parents, it’s frustrating and exhausting. It can also be hard to understand why they can’t just put the pants on. We may even force them to. But, our kids are literally yelling out because those pants might be downright painful. They aren’t being bad when they refuse to wear jeans, socks, or whatever, it’s simply how their brain works, and they don’t quite know how to put that into words.
Also, many kids that have sensory issues with clothing also don’t like to get messy or are particular about what they will touch and perhaps even eat. That’s because all of those activities are related to the tactile sense. If you see your child having a general sensitivity head to everything about sensory sensitivity to learn more.
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What Should You Do About Sensory Issues with Clothing?
Let’s talk about the basics because this is where we should all start when we’re facing a child’s sensory issue with clothing. And, honestly, just having this simple plan will give you a lot of peace and knock the frustration level down a few pegs because you’ll have a plan that you can start right now.
1. Try to understand – Sounds like a small detail, but don’t overlook this step because this is what helps us keep our sanity. When you find yourself getting frustrated or exhausted by your kid’s sensory issues with clothing, try to imagine how uncomfortable it must be for them. The added benefit to this is that over time your kid will notice your understanding and start to communicate better because they know you get it and are there for them. It’s pretty cool when that happens.
2. Don’t Force – Oh so tempting, but forcing a pair of socks, pants, or fancy lacy dress can have a pretty detrimental effect on their sensory system, making matters only worse. Not to mention that they are going to fight you more in the future because they’ll think you don’t get it and aren’t there to help.
3. Allow for extra time – This is a hard one for me, I always push everything to the last minute, but when you know your child has sensory issues with clothing this can be a total game changer. One thing I didn’t mention earlier is that kids sensory systems are always in fluctuation, which means that what bothers them one day might not the next. For some kids, it can be hard to predict when they’re going to have a total meltdown over the jeans. Having that extra time to work through it might be exactly what you need.
4. Offer Choices – As soon as kids feel like they have some control over what their body experiences, they are more willing to push themselves out of their comfort zone. If possible, give them two pairs of pants to choose from, ideally of different textures or fit. If they aren’t sure you can talk about the differences, “You can choose the black pants with no buttons, or these jeans with a zipper and snap. Which would you like to wear today?”
5. Think sensory friendly clothing – While every child is unique, by in large most sensory issues with clothing are because of seams in socks or pants, or a strong preference for comfortable clothing like sweatpants. Although some kids prefer tight-fitting clothing, as well. Notice what your child seems to complain about or gravitate towards.
For Issac, he particularly dislikes jeans and any pants that have buttons or the hidden adjustable waistband. I know exactly what bother’s him, so in his case, having elastic wasted comfortable pants would be helpful. It may be different for your child.
Here are a few examples of sensory friendly clothing:
6. Use a time limit – Isaac also hates, probably more than jeans, button-down shirts. I ask him to wear these to church sometimes, which is really challenging for him. He’ll often concede if he knows he can take it off as soon as we get back home. If you have a special outfit you want your child to wear, then telling them when they get to take it off will help.
7. Get more help – If you try all of the above steps and can’t seem to get past the daily battle about what clothes your child is going to wear, I’d recommend a sensory evaluation with an occupational therapist, which could be tremendously helpful for you and your child. Head over to sensory integration therapy to learn more.
How to Get Over Sensory Issues with Clothing
As an OT, I love strategies to help us get through challenges with our kids, like those listed above, but what I love even more is to get to the root of the problem. Let’s uncover the best ways to help your child improve the way they process sensory information about their clothing, that decreases their tactile defensiveness.
1. Wilbarger Brushing Protocol – Frequently referred to as “brushing”, and as strange as it sounds, is taking a specific brush (looks like a surgical brush) and with a firm pressure taking 2 minutes to firmly rub it all over your child’s back, arms, and legs. While this is very easy, it’s copyright states that it can only be taught in person by an occupational therapist that’s been certified to do so.
The good news is the majority of pediatric OT’s have this certification or training. If your child is already in OT and they have sensory issues with clothing or other signs of tactile defensiveness, ask the OT about it!
2. Sensory Bins – Again, this may sound surprising or even strange, but if your child regularly plays in different textures (think: sand, dry rice, shaving cream, finger paints, etc.) their tactile system can greatly improve and the sensory issues with clothing can all but disappear. I’ve certainly seen this happen with Isaac over time! Head over to Sensory Bin Ideas to get organized.
And, I’m not the only one that sees these changes, check out this post from my free help for picky eating facebook group:
3. Repeated Exposure – Although we don’t want to force, it’s helpful to encourage them to try, especially if it’s a clothing that can’t be worked around. Try small doses at home and build up your time.
4. Firm Pressure – When your child does push through their sensory issues with clothing and they are still a bit uncomfortable, a little bit of firm pressure goes a long way because for a lot of kids it’s very calming to their sensory system. You can give firm pressure by:
- Hugging them (if they like hugs!)
- Squeezing their hand or wrapping your hands around their forearms and giving a firm squeeze
- Pushing down on the tops of their shoulders
5. Use a Sensory Diet – Lots of times, if a child has sensory issues with clothing, they likely have some sensory issues in some other aspect of their life. Isaac is also very wild and while he’s sensitive to certain textures with his tactile system, he craves and seeks out other sensations like proprioceptive and vestibular input. When I give him a chance to get his sensory system balanced through certain activities, his refusal to wear certain types of clothing diminishes.
Check out this sensory diet template to learn more about how to set a sensory diet up for your child.
Finding the Solution that Works for You and Your Child
The morning that I walked into Isaac’s room a few months ago, wouldn’t be the last like it, but on that day and other days since, I’ve used a combination of all the strategies you just read about. I pulled out two of his most comfortable pants to choose from, helped him put them on, and then firmly rubbed his legs right away.
Fortunately, he quickly got over wearing pants but, we do have frequent conversations and negotiations around which days he’ll wear jeans. Together we also search for the softest jeans in his drawer and usually pick out a shirt he really likes.
However, believe me when I say that I know full well that this may be too big of a step for your child. For you, it may mean letting your child wear shorts, even in the winter, as you work through their sensory issues with clothing. Or, your solution could be stocking their closet with tight performance fit clothing because it’s one less battle you have to have, and you notice that they’re way more chill when they have it on anyways.
Get More Help, NOW!
If you’d like to learn more about how to help meet your child’s sensory needs, then join me in the free sensory workshop that I co-teach and learn how to identify what your child’s “sensory issues” are and how to create a simple plan to help them.
More on Kid’s Sensory Issues
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.