What To Do About Child Clothing Sensitivity

Annie The Nanny

Annie The Nanny

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Annie the Nanny is a professional parenting educator. She writes a weekly advice column for parents who need help with their children's behaviour. Her advice has also been featured on CTV, CBC and in all kinds of print media. For more information about Annie, please go to her 'about' page.

Hello Annie.  My 7-year-old granddaughter is having daily battles with her parents about getting dressed. It’s just that I don’t know what to do about children’s clothing sensitivity. Each day is at least a half-hour of yelling, screaming, and crying. They have purchased the clothes she picks out and “wants,” but it has not helped.

She always says the clothes are too tight or rub her, and she is uncomfortable. She said a pair of shoes two sizes too big were OK, but her mother would not purchase them. The only things she will eventually put on are very big: waist 2 inches too big, length several inches too long, etc. They have tried very soft, loose clothes, etc., but nothing seems to work. Do you have any suggestions for these frantic parents?  Thank you. Gram

Hello Gram,
What to do about child clothing sensitivity.

Thank you for writing to me. I definitely have some suggestions in terms of how this situation can be best handled. Unfortunately, a child’s sensitivity to clothes is one of those areas where feelings run high, both on the part of the child and that of the parents. It is also a common complaint. Many parents believe that clothing sensitivity is the issue, when in my experience, quite often it’s actually something else that’s contributing to the behaviour. Those are the things we find out with my behaviour intervention service. That doesn’t mean the condition of extreme sensitivity to modern materials doesn’t exist in children, but it is rare.

The question in your granddaughter’s case is whether or not her reaction is caused by a true sensitivity creating real discomfort or because it has become an attention-getting device. To determine this, here are a number of things you might like to look for:

What to do about child clothing sensitivity: What to look for.

Has she got a rash?

Does she itch?

If she doesn’t have a rash but is itchy, when does she itch? Only when someone’s looking, or all the time?

Is she constantly pulling at the material (even the bigger clothes)? Does she do it when engaged in some other distracting activity, like playing with a friend?

Other than when she first puts the clothes on, does she continually go on about the clothes all day?

What about when she is at school or with other people? Does she complain more when she’s not the focus of activity or when she’s told to do something else?

Does she decide it’s a problem at other high-stress periods, i.e., when mom and/or dad and her have to go somewhere or get something done?

Does she look up for a reaction from her parents when she scratches?

Does she complain about wearing clothes associated with activities she likes, i.e., ballet or swimming?

What to do about child clothing sensitivity: Ok, if the problem is real, here’s what to do.

Ok, the above are all things to look for, which should help you determine whether she actually has a problem with the materials or tightness or not. If she does have real issues with chemical sensitivity, I’d advise you to dress her in natural fibres as much as possible and keep things floppy. Her mom and dad might want to experiment with natural soaps in case the detergent or fabric softener is adding to her discomfort. The parents should consult a doctor about possible allergies and might also wish to consult a professional in the natural health industry for their recommendations in terms of other natural clothing alternatives, different detergents, foods, etc.

What to do about child clothing sensitivity: Determine how much is reasonable.

It’s quite possible that she does feel some discomfort with tight clothing, even if you determine that it’s not a major sensitivity using the above criteria. The issue then is: just how far do her parents want to go in accommodating her? I think it’s reasonable to keep clothes floppy but the right size and appropriate for school, etc. Beyond that, in my view, it’s a matter of coming to terms with how the rest of the world works. After all, I get car sick, but I still have to get from place to place unless I want to ride my bike.

Children engage in behaviours that give them a reward. That reward is attention. Negative attention is equally as good as the positive variety, and it’s obvious she’s getting a lot of that from those morning rows. If the parents want that behaviour to disappear, then they have to alter the balance of where they offer that attention. This means providing positive attention for the behaviours they do want by noticing when she’s doing well or behaving appropriately and, at the same time, removing attention from the behaviours they don’t want.

It sounds easy, but it does require nerves of steel. Here’s what I’d do: I would sit her down and say that from now on, we were no longer going to have fights over what to wear. I would explain that it’s tiring for everyone and not much fun. From this point on, I would make it clear that she can help choose two choices of reasonable clothing the night before school, of which she could then pick one to wear in the morning. I would warn her that she must come out of her room wearing one of those two picks, or she will have to stay in her room until she can choose. At that point, I’d casually point out that if she doesn’t make a selection fast enough, she’ll probably be late for school.

What to do about child clothing sensitivity: Ok, on to the second part of the plan!

On to the second part of the plan. In advance, I would contact the teacher and mention that my daughter is likely going to be significantly late and that I would be grateful if he or she would notice that lateness and perhaps provide a comment and/or a consequence.

So what’s likely to happen in this sort of scenario? Well, the first morning is likely to be fraught as your granddaughter balks at choosing one set of clothes and therefore refuses to come out or comes out wearing something else. If she does this, that’s to be expected, and I hope her parents can stay very calm, taking her back with little fuss. She may scream and have a complete meltdown, during which they should stay very calm and not back down. They might mention casually that she’ll be late, but they should try to keep it light. The bottom line should be that if your granddaughter doesn’t come out wearing one set of clothes (one of the choices), she doesn’t get to come out at all.

No doubt, at one point, she will emerge looking cross and wearing something reasonable. Hopefully, her parents will ignore the pouty face and act completely normally. It’s best if they don’t explain themselves or talk about the subject but just give her some breakfast or lunch and get her off to school. She will probably be very late. The teacher will notice and, with any luck, make a comment or give a consequence that will likely have a profound and compelling impact. No one likes to be noticed in such a circumstance. This is not the kind of attention she would have been hoping for.

This is simply a case of allowing a logical consequence to happen. If she cannot choose, she will be late, and if she’s late, someone will notice. If she balks at choosing the night before, I would suggest that her parents warn her that she has half an hour, and if she can’t make up her mind, they will put two reasonable outfits out for her. If she then whines over lack of choice, her parents should be empathic but should not give her another opportunity to choose until the next evening. This will make it far less likely that she will squander her opportunity the next time.

To get more parenting questions answered, please visit my parenting services page.

I do hope this helps.

All the best,


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