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 uncaring parent, but I know why he’s 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 kid’s 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 bothers him, so in his case, having elastic waist 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 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.
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.
Grab our free 25 sensory activities printable to download and/or print!
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 your child with their sensory difficulties, then join me in the free workshop: 3 Expert Secrets to Calm and Focus Your Child with Specialized Sensory Activities!
CLICK HERE TO GET A FREE SEAT!
More on Kid’s Sensory Issues
Epic Messy Play List that’s Sensory-filled, Inspiring, and Easy!
60 Printable Sensory Diet Cards for Kids to Thrive
100+ Awesome and Easy Sensory Diet Activities
8 Quick Tips for Kids that Hate Getting Sunscreen Put On
Did You Pin This?
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 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.
I want to share a routine I have been doing for a few months, and it has been amazing. Mornings are often stressful and parents are on a short time table to get to work. I have been taking the time in the evening to get my daughter dressed for her next day. And she just sleeps in her next day clothes. This lets us try out and find the right clothes that fits her sensory needs. Mornings have been great since doing this. Getting dressed at night hasn’t been too bad either because I am not stressed and frustrated and she seems more open to clothes and how they feel in the evening. Hopefully this helps others!
Hi Nicole! Thanks for reaching out and sharing this advice! So glad it’s been helpful for you and your family 🙂
is OT covered by insurance ?
Some do and some don’t. Call your provider to find out! Here is a blog post with more info!
I have a daughter with clothing sensory issues. Where can I find clothing, not just pajamas that are seamless? No buttons or snaps or clips.
Hi Autumn! Try searching keywords like “autism friendly clothing” or “seamless clothing” on Google! That may be your best bet to finding a variety of brands/sellers/options to fit her needs 🙂
I have full custody of my granddaughter she’s turning 7 in January she used to wear underwear but now she refuses. I have boughten so many different types and she just won’t she wears tights. I constantly try with she still refuses. If she wears a dress she wears short tights underneath. I just don’t know what else I can do
Hi Christine! It sounds like you’re doing a great job finding different things that could work for her. Another great thought might be to help her desensitize to different textures. It can take a while, but sensory bins are a great way to do that. You can find a huge list of ideas HERE.
As an adult who has gone through the sensory issue with clothes as a kid and still with some textures like stiff denim, I will say that as long as the child is dressed modestly, I would not fret. When I was four I had a nightmare that someone was stuffing cotton socks and undershirts down my throat. I could no longer wear them and needed to wear thin synthetic socks and no undershirt. It took years to outgrow it but I did.
Hi Mary! Thanks for reaching out and sharing your personal experience and perspective! That must have been so difficult to go through as a child! Glad to hear you outgrew it and are doing better 🙂
My son, is having major issues with his sleeves. It seems to be getting worse. Coming off summer he would fight wearing sleeves and then a jacket. Now he won’t take the sweatshirt off even for bed it’s a battle. The issue is that he pushes up his sleeves (so they don’t fall down?) Every 30 seconds. When he’s busy with his hands he has his arms pinned to his sides for fear of the sleeves falling down. He’s basically TRex trying to do stuff. We make him take it off for bed but that has been a battle sometimes with him laying on the floor for an hour. When we take it off he doesn’t want to wear a shirt at all so sleeps topless which is fine but then he doesn’t want to get out of bed because of the getting dressed part. Any help appreciated I really don’t know the best way to approach but it’s clearly affecting his quality of life
My nephew cannot get his jeans tight enough!!!! They have the adjustable waist and he he makes them the tightest they will go until he leaves marks across his abdomen. Would compression underwear help?
Hi Melissa! Yes, compression underwear could definitely help, since it seems like he seeks that compression-like sensation!
We are struggling badly with this today. My daughter cannot stand any of her pants. She’s insisting that she wear shorts even when it’s in the 20s-30s here. It’s getting too cold and I can’t find anything else she will wear. I’m constantly ordering new clothes for her trying to find literally anything that she can tolerate. We have the added struggle of both of us having adhd. When she gets super overstimulated by her sensory defensiveness I get overwhelmed and then we both have a breakdown. She went to school crying today (we couldn’t find a single thing she was comfortable in, not even shorts, so she had to wear something she didn’t want to). I’ve been crying since I dropped her off because I feel like a failure for being so frustrated and not being able to reign in my overwhelm. I really need advice. Are there any clothing brands that make clothes for kids like her? They can’t touch her skin or she cries. I just want her to be comfortable and happy.
My daughter is the same way. I live in the northeast and it’s starting to get cold and I dread having to put pants on her. She actually hides her shorts in her bed so I can’t put them away in the summer clothes bin. I try to find the softest pants but it doesn’t always work.
Hi Alisha! So sorry to hear about your daughter’s struggles with this. We understand how stressful it can be. Definitely try Google searching for sensory-friendly clothes. Also, another great thought might be to help her desensitize to different textures. It can take a while, but sensory bins are a great way to do that. We have more sensory help in our free sensory workshop— save your seat here!
I am really struggling. I had the issue a few years ago with my 3 year old refusing to wear anything. Selfishly, although I tried to understand from her perspective, it impacted our life greatly I.e me missing doctors appointments as i couldn’t get her to get dressed to leave the house and i can honestly say i didnt enjoy parenting then. Fast forward 2 years and we are now there with my almost 2 year old. Even a nappy is unbearable to her and she is constantly naked. This is so difficult it’s so cold in my house and with the rise in energy bills I’m really struggling to afford keeping the heating on 24/7. I’m worried I am going to go down that slippery slope again of not enjoying being a mother. I LOVE my kids and I love being a parent but I really struggle here :-(. Any advice please? I myself am over stimulated too as well as my toddler .
Hi Laura! So sorry to hear about your daughter’s struggles with this. We understand how stressful it can be. Definitely try Google searching for sensory-friendly clothes. Also, another great thought might be to help her desensitize to different textures. It can take a while, but sensory bins are a great way to do that. We have more sensory help in our free sensory workshop— save your seat here!
You don’t mention her age, but the pants touching my skin issue started for me when I shaved my legs as a gymnast. There was suddenly no barrier between my skin and the texture of the fabric. I had the same problem with how the sheets of my bed felt on the shaved legs. I finally quit shaving and the feeling stopped. What about microfleece pants ? Not sure if they are still available for kids, but it’s a less irritating texture. Also, I would get a depilling device and make sure the clothes don’t have those little fabric pills compiling, which still irritate my skin as an adult.
Oh thank you for writing this! My son has the exact same struggle – jeans and button ups/polos.
Hi Jessica! You’re so very welcome! Thank you for the support and feedback!
And it doesn’t go away as an adult. I had a meltdown getting ready for church because my pants were too tight — they were fine yesterday. Some compromises, like wearing nice jeans even though it’s not church clothes, lessened it. Eating some food, despite breaking the fast, let me feel less hungry and nauseous and better able to manage the other sensations. Then distraction, playing my iPad game, let me body adapt. It wasn’t perfect and it still bugged me at church, but not as much. Forcing me to match the dress expectation would have been worse and probably would have led to not going. So for all parents out there, please remember what you actually want and listen when your kid says the clothes are painful.
My daughter, 5, has been like this since toddling. She has to have a vest on under clothes even on hottest days of the year. She used to wear nothing but leggings in a certain fabric, but now she only wears dresses and long socks! She hasn’t worn leggings/trousers/tights for 6 months now. Her dresses have to be straight up and down, no seam across the tummy or chest, no tiers or embellishments just plain and stretchy. Even then it can sometimes be wrong. She got a dress she loved at Christmas (long sleeves with red candy cane print) no doubt she will want to wear it in summer too!! Going out in winter is embarrassing. I’m wrapped up in winter gear and she has a dress, long socks, minus coat, scarf or hat. Just have to cut down how long we are out for or not at all. It’s soul destroying some days.
She does like a good foot rub, back scratch and squeezy hug though! When she started school in September I had the battle of all battles with uniform. It’s ongoing but getting better gradually.
Hi Gemma! Sounds like it’s been a long journey, but so glad to hear that progress has been made and life is slowly getting easier! If you need any help with sensory needs, we have a free sensory workshop that might help. You can save your seat here!
My son is 6 years old, he dont wear a shirt underneath his top or jacket he dont wear shoes at all or undies. every morning he scream and fight because the clothes dont sit right. i was at a dr and therapist and he is ADHD an sensory. i dont know what to do anymore i want this brush because the dr told me that i must brush him. the whole winter he go to school without socks or shoes. please help this tired mother.
My daughter is the same she will not wear knickers with her tights or leggings only her joggers, I bought her a pair of jogging bottoms for school just so she wears underwear as she was getting sore wearing none. she will only wear boys socks from morrisons aged 12 – 2 washed and dried around 5 times till they are soft but i find they are the softest . She wears trainers from show zone £12 she loves them so I have bought 4 pairs, I feel its all about accommodating her requirements.
Hey Sian! It sounds like you’re doing a great job finding things that work for your daughter. Another great thought might be to help her desensitize to different textures. It can take a while, but sensory bins are a great way to do that. You can find a huge list of ideas HERE.
My 4yr daughter these past few weeks has been complaining about her knickers being lose or falling. I have tried smaller sizes and styles and still the same complaint. I am not sure if she is now sensitive to them? This is very new to me what one could have.
Please help .
Hey! Thanks for reaching out! It may be a sensory issue that she has started to develop or it may be that they get loose throughout the day. Using sensory bins and proprioceptive activities can be really helpful. She might also respond well to biker/spandex type shorts over them.