Written by Jamie Granatino, M.S., BCBA
We all can remember outfits from our childhood that we hated, but our parents made us wear – that frilly dress that made it hard to run and play, the scratchy sweater your grandmother knitted, a turtleneck shirt that hugged your neck too tightly. It’s perfectly normal for your child to have clothing preferences – we all do – but clothing preferences can become a problem when they are too restricted. Perhaps your child attends a school with a strict dress code, and he will only wear tank tops or t-shirts instead of the polo shirts. Maybe your child will wear any shorts you buy, but long pants lead to tantrums. Perhaps your child shows flexibility with types of clothing, but can’t tolerate certain textures or refuses to wear certain colors. As parents, it is our job to help expose and accustom our children to a variety of experiences so they can develop the flexibility and tolerance they will need to navigate adult situations. Perhaps it’s fine for your 4 year old to wear t-shirts and athletic shorts/pants every day, but what about when he is a teenager applying for jobs? When he has to wear a suit for an important formal occasion? When he has to wear a uniform for school, work, or an activity? Systematic Desensitization is a technique designed to gradually increase a child’s tolerance to things that make him/her uncomfortable or anxious. Here are some tips to help use this technique to increase the variety of clothing that your child will wear:
- Look to see what flexibility and accommodations you can reasonably make. Yes, your child needs to wear a warm coat on the few cold days we get here in Florida. But does it have to be a big bulky one that barely lets him move? Look at different options that will allow your child to move comfortably. Look at different fabric and texture options – not all warm sweaters are scratchy and uncomfortable. Take into account his/her color preferences. Remove tags that are unessential and may irritate his skin. Consider clothing companies that make seamless or tagless clothing for children. Find clothing, if appropriate for the setting, that incorporates your child’s favorite TV characters, superheroes, or sports team.
- Find a reinforcer. If you are asking your child to step out of their comfort zone and wear something that feels uncomfortable for them, you need to find something that will act as a good reward for them. Home treasure boxes, special activities or outings, or their favorite snack or dessert can serve as powerful motivators when delivered immediately after your child complies.
- Start small. Depending on your child’s resistance and anxiety, you may have to start out just having your child touch and hold the clothing item. Start with a small requirement for a short amount of time, and then reinforce your child’s compliance and go do something else for a while. Then next time you come back to it, have them hold it for a little longer or put one arm through it for a short period of time, and then reinforce compliance and give them a break. Gradually increase what you are asking of them. If you find you are encountering too much problem behavior, you may be moving too quickly – take a step back and move more slowly.
- Consider sizing. Some children prefer clothes that are loose and roomy. Start with a size that is comfortable for them, and then gradually decrease one size at a time until they are wearing the appropriate size. Or, conversely, if your child is wearing clothes that are too snug or tight, gradually get him used to clothes that are a more appropriate size, increasing one increment at a time. If it is not too warm, you may want to consider in this situation allowing your child to temporarily wear a tight t-shirt or leggings underneath the more socially appropriately sized clothing as your child gets used to this.
- Remove completely inappropriate clothing options. If your child is insisting on wearing her shorts from two summers ago that are much too small for public decency now, arrange for them to quietly disappear from your child’s drawers to parts unknown. It is much easier in the morning when you are running around trying to get your family out the door to coach your child to make an appropriate clothing choice if she has not already come out of her room wearing the inappropriate choice.
- Move slowly, but don’t back down. Once you have placed a demand on your child, you need to show them that you will be consistent and follow through. If you ask them to wear a t-shirt for 2 minutes but then allow them to take it off after one minute and still give them their reinforcer, they are going to continue resisting you and being noncompliant.
- Give them a role model. Make sure that the clothes you are asking them to wear are typical of what other children our wearing so that they can use their peers and friends as role models. Does your child idolize his big teenage brother? Bribe his brother to wear a bigger version of what your little one is wearing to help encourage him. Have a family dress-up day and do a special activity together if you are working on getting your child to tolerate dress clothes.
These tips should serve as a guide to helping your child tolerate a variety of clothing options. For some children, due to severe sensory issues and/or anxiety, more assistance may be needed. Contact us at our Tampa or Wesley Chapel offices if you need assistance from one of our board certified behavior analysts in helping your child to dress for success!