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.
My student doesn’t keep any clothes or diaper on, he rips them off and rips the bed linens off, also he rips other kids clothing aswell. Most time I have to restrain him.
Any information you give would be greatly appreciated.
Sorry you are dealing with this. It does sound like it could be sensory related! Other than suggestions in the article we do have a free workshop that goes over sensory ideas/explanation that might help guide you! You can save your seat HERE
I see this post is of 2019 …I am reading this on 24Dec 2020.Please let me know what solution did you found for this child on this.I hope and pray this and every child is doing good.
Same thing is going with me now just the same you mentioned about in this post.
my 2yrs old
Dont like diapers,no pants ,no shirt no quilt or bedsheet even if we go in cover like if we are feeling cold if we pullover somthing even he tries to take it away…
So sorry you are dealing with this. Hopefully you found some great suggestions in the article. I’d walk through those and see if anything is helping. It can take some time to work through this. Finding an occupational therapist to teach you the Wilbarger brushing can also be helpful (as mentioned in the article).
Hi there! You guys are not alone! I, however, with the help of my cousins advice am just now learning about tactile sensitivities. My youngest just started kindergarten and I’d been having terrible anxiety leading up to the first day of school. It has been a fight every.single.morning…she doesn’t want to wear washed clothes (fixed that with different laundry detergent/no fabric softener) she doesn’t like soft clothes, baggy clothes, jeans, certain socks, underwear, or shirts that the neckline practically isn’t choking her! It is a fight everyday! Any advice would greatly be appreciated. 💕
I know this can be hard on you, as you only want what is best!! I’d try the recommendations in the post, but if you feel you need more suggestions reaching out for an OT evaluation can be helpful!! They can show you some hands on activities that can be helpful for clothing!
I have the exact same problem with my son. He was really bad at age 4-5. He’s now 9. One thing that really helped is that after his bath in the evening, he puts on what he will wear to school the next day. This has given us more time to let him pick out the most comfortable for him. I also let him wear shorts all the time unless he wants to wear pants. I guess it helps that we live in California because it doesn’t get super cold but we still have our freezing days.
I could completely relate to the author’s story. I could even picture myself cringing with the description of the crying. I had no idea that there are ways to help. I’m starting this week! Thanks for article.
Your welcome Beth, we know how hard this can be. Glad you are finding some ideas for help!! But also looking at what works best for your son. Hope these help and keep us posted!
I am sensitive to some fragrances on top of tactile issues, using a fragrance free laundry detergent so the smell of the clothing isn’t altered as much might help some.
Thanks for sharing! That can be helpful for so many people 🙂
My child does not like to wear constrictive clothing for example underwear, bathing suits, shirt with elastic on the sleeves. What can I doe to help.
Use some of tips mentioned in the post above to start to address some of the issues.
I haven’t read this full article yet, but I could burst into tears, I don’t know if that’s through relief or guilt. My 4 year old, for the last year has become very particular about what she wears, I couldn’t understand it because it would fluxuate, one day it’s shoes, then socks, jeans, not wanting coats zipped up, nothing round her waste – even loosely! Every morning is a battle! And because she would wear it one day and not the next I felt it was just her being awkward. But after reading 30% of this article I can see how wrong Iv been! It’s like someone’s summed up my experience with her. I knew deep down the level of frustration she had wasn’t normal, she is very strong willed but it was beyond that. because of the pressure rushed mornings I have been handling it all wrong. I’m going to have a good read and hopefully pick my little one up today with a better ability to help her through these sensitivities.
Thank you so much.
That’s so good Michelle! I’m so happy so found us!
Wow! This was very helpful im just now stepping into this with my 14 yr old daughter tags have always bugged her and seems but we have been able to move thru it until this morning where it was an all over body feeling that she was just uncomfortable and everything made her itchy! reading this has brought alot of understanding learning and comfort as well as sifting thru and reading some of the comments thankyou for sharing !!!
So glad you found this article and able to understand a little more. Hopefully the tips in the article will help you!
My son has been the same for the last number of years, one day his clothes are damp and can’t wear them, next day is fine, next day his shoes are too tight or loose and the next it’s the opposite, I have always been very hard on him and watched him in total meltdown mode over these issues and then the green eyed monster comes out in me through pure frustration and not understanding and I would force the clothes/shoes/football boots on him with little regard to how it makes him feel. Now I feel I have some understanding to him bad behaviour, thank you for helping me to understand.
My 5 1/2 yr old daughter has had
This for 3+ years. No other sensory issues, will happily wear any swimsuit if it’s pretty etc. We gave up on underwear except when she’s wearing a dress. She only wears leggings and picky about the fabric and fit. We also gave up on pajamas and she now puts her clothes for the next day on before bed. It saves time in the morning for clothes freak outs. This winter she wore ugg style boots
With wool fur insides and no socks
All winter. Shoes for PE are a battle but I put them in her Bag and she changes at school. I do think once she has something on she’s typically fine but the thought of wearing certain shoes or clothes is crippling for her and she shuts down. I can’t find summer shoes that she’ll wear and need to get her out of the boots, any suggestions?
I know it sounds strange, but actually regularly playing in sensory bins for 4-6 weeks helps to ‘re-wire’ her tactile system so she can become more tolerant. I’d also ask her what she thinks would help, can you go shoe shopping together?
Thanks. She has no problem with the way things feel except
Clothes and shoes. She’ll happily play in mud, sand, wet etc.
We have 12 pairs of “pretty shoes” that she tried that don’t feel good that I need to return. All she’ll wear are Nike slides that are soft so that’s what she’ll wear until school or camp says she can’t.
Your daughter sounds exactly like mine. She also wears an Ugg type boat all school year with no socks, last summer I got her sandals that are more like a sneaker and she was great with those. All you can do is try. Of course as soon as Fall came the Uggs were back.
This is a very late reply, but I’m dealing with same issues and didn’t realize it could actually be a sensory problem.
Anyways… my daughter would wear crocs all summer. Because they are wide and comfortable. Plus something like these Native Kids Shoes Jefferson Bling Glitter (Little Kid) Girls Shoes …
I couldn’t post a pic. Looks like different manufacturers… but she lived in these all summer long. And I think they make some similar for winter, so I’m going to check that out as well.
My daughter is almost 11 and this has controlled our lives. She will want to buy clothes that she insists will be better, tries them on and says she likes them and then takes the tags off and immediately says they feel weird and she can’t handle it. She’ll say she’ll only wear sweats, so we buy her sweats. Those particular sweats done feel right or are slightly too short and touch her ankle or slightly too long.
We’re always stressed and every morning makes me have full blown panic about getting her ready for school. I thought this would go away by this age, but it’s actually gotten worse. It used to be only underwear, then underwear and socks, then pants and now shirts. She has dropped out of every sport she enjoys because she can’t handle the uniforms. She won’t swim because she refuses a bathing suit and wet clothes make her crazy.
Have you heard of it lasting to this age? Do you think it could still be this? We have constantly told her we would get her help, but she screams at the thought.
I feel hopeless
Absolutely, it can! I’d think about taking her to an occupational therapy evaluation to help her desensitize and learn coping strategies. Playing in a variety of sensory bins can also be immensely beneficial if you do them daily for 6-8 weeks and rotate textures. We also have a free sensory workshop that can give you a bigger picture way to help handle this. Check it out at yourkidstable.com/workshop
My daughter is 10 and does this exact same thing. We have recently discovered she has OCD.
Thank you for the article and suggestions. I started to tear up when you mentioned some of the things your son would do with his issues with clothing. My daughter is 6 almost 7 and we have been dealing with clothing issues since she was about 2ish almost 3. I keep thinking she will just grow out of it, but it is starting to effect her in other areas. For instance, she would like to play softball, but the idea of her wearing the full uniform, will give her major sensory issues. She has problems withe shirts, pants, socks, underwear, shoes and having her hair up. No issues withe food, sleep, sight, hearing, or academics. Just clothes/hair. I do have outfits that she would wear daily, but there are times when she has to wear a dress, jeans, or a uniform of some sort and it makes her have a complete meltdown. One of the most frustrating parts of of it all is that she will pick out her clothes the night before, try them on, be perfectly fine with it, and then the next day she acts like it is hurting her to have that outfit on. It is not like she dislikes the way it looks, she cannot stand it on her skin. Her pupils dilate, she can’t think, cries, and goes into a full fledge meltdown. I feel helpless over here. I have tried multiple things to help her. <3
It’s definitely a tough thing to deal with. Be sure to try some of the tips in the post more than once. Sometimes it changes from day to day like you have seen already.
I definitely will! Thank you 🙂
My 8 year old has been struggling with pants and panties lately. Mostly it’s the pants. The sensory bins sound like something we could try. I noticed in the pics that they are mostly little kids that fit their whole body in the container. Would it be beneficial for her to play in a bin with just her hands or does it need to be something big enough to put her legs in since that is the problem area?
Oh yes, still beneficial, I’ve used them with older kids! I’d just have her put her feet in if she can tolerate that, you may have to work up to that though!
I was just like Isaac when I was a kid. I couldn’t wear anything but the softest/most comfortable clothes without being acutely miserable. I don’t think my parents ever understood what was wrong with me and would force me to wear clothes and shoes that would make me throw a fit. All I could focus on for hours was the item of clothing touching me and how much I HATED it. As an adult, I’ve mostly grown out of it, but there are still ways that I hate being touched and some clothing that I still can’t wear without feeling uncomfortable. I’m glad to know at least that I’m not alone.
Not at all Lanae, thanks for sharing! It will help others understand their kids better:)
Thank you Alisha, I’m writing from Rome, Italy, and I found very interesting, complete and so useful your post! My 6 year old son troubles every day to find the right socks or pants, even for the t-shirt!!! Do you know-how that this particular trait in children could be the signal of High Sensitive? I’ve found, some years ago, that he is a High Sensitive Person, like I am and from that moment I started to understand him and his strange behaviours in a different way!
I’m so glad you’ve had those insights, being particular about clothing is definitely a sensitivity from the sensory processing side of things. Some textures are bothering him because of how they feel!
Thanks for this! Are the sensory bin and sensory diet ideas for any age? If so, do you have any tips on using it with older kids? My son is 7, so just touching things isn’t that interesting for him. He is aware enough to know when something is “for his own good”, so he needs to be bought in that it will be fun.
Oh yes, I’ve used sensory bins with kids up to the age of teenagers. My 8 year old will still go hog wild in a sensory bin (he has no tactile or clothing sensitivities). But, to get him interested, you could hide puzzle pieces, pokemon cards, game pieces, whatever he’s interested in. I’d also focus on art. Finger painting or painting with colored shaving cream, etc.
Well said, understanding is the best way to approach kids, unless you see their sensitiveness about their clothes in their own terms, you will always lose control of your self, which strains the relationship between you and them further. Simply understand
I fought with underwear and socks for years with my daughter and we always had to find compromises, she decided as a teenager that she could at last wear socks and underwear but this was definitely her own choice. At primary school she was able to wear her own choice of clothes, leggings and t.shirts/sweatshirts and fur lined boots in winter. I wrote my two books happy Tapping with Mia & Charlie and Energy EFT For Teenagers to help other parents with stresses and anxieties around home and school life. I wish I had known about EFT when my girls were small, it would have made so much difference!
You’re so sweet Karen, the sensory stuff is slow coming! Not a lot of people still know about it. I bet you did just great with him:) Thanks for sharing your perspective, so helpful for parents living it now!
Oh how I wish your website was around 25 years ago. I could have been such a better mom. For the longest time my son called jeans “hard pants,” would wear, only under duress, a button down shirt, refused to wear shirts with any kind of design that he could feel on the inside of the shirt, had to have the tags removed, and would only wear socks with the nubs cut off. He is now 25. I am happy to report that he cuts the nubs off of his own socks now, prefers to wear shorts, primarily gym shorts (even during Kansas City, Missouri, winters). However when it comes to work, or his wife wants to be seen in public with him :), he will wear pants/jeans now.
We’re in kc too ☺ currently struggling with clothing for my 6 yo daughter. I try to get her into a warm shower/bath before school time to warm up her muscles. Shes a nudist. Its been hard having to wear a uniform, she wears her pants and socks inside out and refuses underwear. Ive been searching for silky pants or softer pants without as many seams and have yet to find any. Her 3 yo sister is falling right behind her, I have 5 children all together.
That’s so tough Sarah! I can’t tell you how much of an impact regular play in the sensory bins can have!
My daughter, 3 years, has always been complicated with clothes, but we’ve had two crisis, when we started potty training and now that we took her pacifier away. And also when she is overtired it is really difficult.
I went to an OT and she could not diagnose her with anything. So I think she is just more sensible.
I’d try some of the tips from the article to see if that helps, like providing extra time and options!
My daughter is four years old and has SPD. Panties ar a struggle for her too. I recently found panties at Walmart that’s don’t have as many seamstress and the material isn’t smooth kind of like a swimsuit. Also no tags and it’s a walmart brand product. Hope it helps you.
I totally know what you mean…my daughter is the same way. Its been a struggle every morning trying to get out the door. She also wears here sweaters and jackets inside out…My biggest struggle is socks, underwear and pants..She stills refuses to wear pants even its 30 degrees outside. If I even try to force her to wear them she just cries and she rips them off. I don’t know what to do. Its exhausting. I am in the mist of trying to find new socks and shoes for her at this time. Ive managed to have here find 3 dresses she will wear but thats about it…hoping she grows out of this.