Clothing sensory issues can be exhausting! Learn why kids may have a sensory sensitivity, how to help your kid who refuses to wear clothes, get ideas for sensory friendly clothing.
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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, crying in the distance. As a pediatric occupational therapist I know it’s because of sensory issues with clothing.
Two minutes ago, he left the kitchen to get dressed for school. 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…
Just as I suspected, he’s standing there in his underwear, hardly able to talk because he’s crying so hard with pants strewn all over the place on the floor.
I bend down in front of him and tell him to take a deep breath, and then he says, “I can’t wear pants, I hate the way they feel on my legs.” I give him a tight hug, (which is calming proprioceptive input to his sensory system) and then I say, “Don’t worry, we’ll work it out.”
I’d like to share my insider OT tricks with YOU, I’ve got 13 of them, but first let’s figure out if your kid has sensory issues with clothing too!
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 from 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 because of how 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.
All of us have some sensory quirks, maybe your child likes to wear their socks inside out or always have a dress on. While that’s related to their unique sensory system, if it’s not causing stress in their daily life it’s a preference not an issue.
For kids that freak out, tantrum, and meltdown over wearing clothing then they likely do have sensory issues with clothing.
Don’t hit the panic button though, because there’s a lot you can do to support your child and stop all the drama getting or staying dressed.
And, there’s even more strategies you can use to improve their sensory processing so they aren’t as sensitive to various clothing anymore!
Why Kids Have Sensory Issues with Clothing…
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, which is 1 of the 8 senses.
For my son, 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 sensory meltdowns over trying to put on a pair of socks, even special sensory friendly socks you bought!
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. It may seem dramatic, but they are actually perceiving the clothing differently than you or I would.
They aren’t being bad when they refuse to wear jeans, socks, or pants, it’s simply how their brain works, and they don’t quite know how to put that into words.
Clothing Sensory Issues = Tactile Defensive
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, when there’s a general sensitivity with touching textures a child likely is tactile defensive.
Depending on how severe the tactile defensiveness is, if there are other sensory sensitivities, or any other sensory issues, a child may have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
Is it Common for Kids with ADHD and ASD to Have Clothing Sensory Issues
Sensory issues show up in a lot of different ways, but these clothing sensitivities seem to be particularly common with ADHD and autism.
However, as an OT I’d use the same strategies (that you’ll learn below) to help a kid that’s refusing to wear clothes whether they had no diagnosis, ADHD, SPD, or Autism because the underlying cause is the same regardless!
How to Manage Your Kid’s Sensory Issues with Clothing?
First, let’s talk about how to handle sensory issues with clothing on a daily basis. Basically, what you can start doing right now! (In the next section I’ll teach you some deeper strategies to improve their clothing sensitivity.)
Step #1: Be Understanding
This may sound 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.
Remember, it is likely painful. They aren’t being bad.
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.
Instead of freaking out, they may think, “I need mom/dad/grandma, they’ll help me.” And, voila, meltdown avoided. That’s half the battle!
Step #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.
This plays off of step 1, but patience and understanding make all the difference for sensory sensitive kids.
Step #3: Allow for extra time
When you know your child has sensory issues with clothing, this can be a total game changer.
Can you start your morning or bedtime routine earlier, even just 5 or 10 minutes to give the space to take time getting dressed and giving any support that’s needed?
If so, it can cause everyone, especially you, to feel less stressed!
It’s also important to note 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. Consistently having that extra time to work through it might be exactly what you need.
Step #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?”
Step #5: Choose sensory friendly clothing
While every child is unique, a lot of sensory issues with clothing are because of seams in socks, underwear, or pants. Or a kid has a strong preference for comfortable clothing that is soft and not constricting.
So they may hate the elastic at the bottom of sweatpants or the top. Or, they hate jeans because they’re stiff, a sweater because it’s itchy.
Although some kids prefer tight-fitting clothing, as well. Notice what your child seems to complain about or gravitate towards.
My son particularly dislikes jeans and any pants that have buttons or the hidden adjustable waistband. I know exactly what bothers him, so in his case, having elastic waist comfortable pants would be helpful.
What clothing you lean towards or avoid may be different for your child. Some families I’ve worked with have found it helpful to have their child go to the store and pick out the clothing, or even better try it on if they can manage that.
Sensory Friendly Clothing
Some kids with sensory issues with clothing definitely benefit from specially designed sensory socks, sensory underwear, or other clothing. If you’re looking to get some, here are some of our top picks:
- Seamless socks
- Tag less shirts
- Compression undershirt
- Seamless underwear for boys and girls
- Soft pants for boys and girls
Step #6: Set a time limit for challenging clothes
My son also hates button-down shirts. I ask him to wear these to church sometimes, which is challenging for him, but possible because I tell him he can take it off as soon as he gets home.
If it was an all out meltdown I wouldn’t “make him” wear this shirt, but sometimes kids don’t have an option, particularly if your kids want to wear no clothing at all.
Or, if it’s cold and they need to put a coat on or have to wear a uniform to school.
Whatever clothing is difficult you can help them by telling them how long they’ll need to keep a specific amount of clothing on. That could be, “As soon as you get home from school you can take off your uniform.” Or, “Once you’re in the car you can take the coat off.”
Step #7: Lower your expectations
Like I just mentioned in the church scenario, sometimes it’s expected that certain clothing should be worn in certain settings.
But if you’ve got a kid who simply hates wearing jeans, consider taking a step back and allowing them to not wear them until you work through some of the underlying issues for why they hate them so much.
Try cutting your child (and yourself) some slack where you can.
Step #8: Get more help
If you have tried these strategies and there is still more help needed, read on. Sometimes it will take more than one strategy coupled together, but here is hope!
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!
It’s a powerful tool, but does need to be used consistently over 4-6 weeks, multiple times a day.
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 my son over time!
And, I’m not the only one that sees these changes, check out what other parents are saying about sensory bins and the impact on their child’s tactile sensitivity:
This strategy, among many others, is extensively covered in our RISE With Sensory Online Program.
Head over to Sensory Bin Ideas to check out ways to start working on this today!
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
I like to use this before they get dressed, while they’re getting dressed, and afterwards if they seem dysregulated or upset still.
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. My son 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.
Finding the Clothing Solution That Works for Your Kid
Unfortunately, there is no immediate “fix” for kids with clothing sensory sensitivities. However, using a combination of all the strategies you just read about can help kids take baby steps toward tolerating different types of clothing.
Collaborating with your child, pulling out two of their most comfortable pants to choose from, helping put them on, and then firmly rubbing their legs right away can make all the difference.
Have frequent conversations and negotiations around which days your child will wear jeans. Together, search for the softest jeans in the drawer and pick out a shirt they really like. This can be a team effort.
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 anyway.
Get More Help, NOW!
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 getting more help.
You can do this in a couple of ways. Google or ask around for sensory integration therapy in your area and schedule an evaluation with an occupational therapist.
Another option is to get support from learning online. We have a free sensory workshop that covers some key strategies from our RISE with Sensory program. Click here to get a spot so you can learn in a deeper way how to help your child today.
This can help you prevent or reduce therapy!
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Each week has several key sensory activities that are designed to stimulate your child’s senses, improve their sensory processing, and even decrease their tactile defensiveness!
All you have to do to win a free copy is leave a comment below about something you found helpful above OR a tip that’s been helpful getting your kid dressed.
Giveaway ends at midnight on Friday, June 2, and the winner will be announced here in the comments and emailed a copy over the weekend.
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More on Kid’s Sensory Issues
So much info here, it’ll be hard to remember it all. Pin it to your parenting or sensory board for safe keeping:)
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 18 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.