Why does my child refuse to wear ‘scratchy’ clothes?
Posted on 30 December 2019
Your youngster might be suffering from tactile defensiveness, a sensory processing difficulty that sees them interpreting certain sensations as dangerous or harmful.
Tactile defensiveness is also commonly known as tactile (touch) sensitivity. It falls under what is known as a Sensory Processing Difficulty. As Faye Campbell, an occupational therapist at Mediclinic Bloemfontein, explains, if your child has this condition, they will show some or all of the signs below, in everyday activities:
When getting dressed, they:
- Dislike the feel of certain fabrics and therefore are very specific with regards to what they will and will not wear.
- Complain about the labels or tags on their clothing and often ask that they be cut off.
- Dislike wearing socks as the seams often irritate them.
- Are easily bothered by their shoes and may repeatedly put them on and take them off or choose to go barefoot.
- Wear the same set of clothing and have a favourite ‘outfit’.
- Wear long-sleeved clothing in summer or short-sleeved clothing in winter.
- Take longer than most children to dress in the mornings or evenings after bathtime.
When eating, they:
- Are picky with regards to food choices based on textures of foods, such as mixed textures (spaghetti bolognaise or stews) or foods with lumps (yoghurt with fruit pieces or crunchy peanut butter).
- Dislike mushy textures such as bananas and mashed potatoes.
- Do not like different foods on their plate to touch each other.
- Often want to eat the same food.
When it comes to washing and grooming, they:
- Dislike having their teeth or hair brushed.
- Dislike having their hair washed.
- Dislike having their hair or nails cut.
When playing and socialising, they:
- Avoid getting their hands dirty, and dislike playing with finger paint, glue, clay or even sand.
- Often ask to wash their hands or have their hands wiped with a wet wipe.
- May shy away from hugs, kisses and touch.
- Find it unpleasant to be tickled.
- Find it difficult to stand in line or close to others where they may be unexpectedly bumped or brushed against.
“If you suspect that your child has tactile defensiveness, it is advised to seek help from a qualified Sensory Integration occupational therapist,” Campbell says. “Tactile defensiveness is not a formal diagnosis, nor is there a formal test to diagnose tactile defensiveness. It may or may not be part of, or a symptom of, an additional diagnosis such as a Sensory Integration Dysfunction. A qualified professional will be able to give you advice on how best to assist your child.”
Campbell explains that professional treatment might include the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol, a specialised technique comprising of a brushing routine followed by deep pressure inputs. “It is essential that this protocol only be implemented under the supervision and monitoring of a qualified Sensory Integration occupational therapist,” Campbell says. Other treatments include: exposure to tactile inputs in a protected environment; vibration and deep pressure activities; the use of weighted blankets, lap pads and vests; and a programme of sensory activities that a child performs during the day to ensure that they get the input their bodies need.
Campbell offers practical tips for you to help your child at home too. Experiment with these suggestions to see what works best for you – and your child.
- Allow for extra time in the mornings for dressing for school, so you do not have to rush your child (rushing leads to increased anxiety which in turn aggravates sensitivities). This extra time will also cater for the unexpected ‘meltdown’ or wardrobe changes.
- If you find an item of clothing that your child will wear and enjoys wearing, buy extras of this item in different colours and sizes.
- Allow your child choice in terms of what they will wear that day, within boundaries.
- Turn socks inside out so seams will be less likely to irritate them. Or buy seamless socks.
- Allow your child to dress themselves. This also assists in decreasing unexpected or unwanted touch input.
- Allow your child to brush and wash their own hair. This allows them to give the touch input in an organised manner and they are in control of the input which makes it less threatening.
- Experiment with different cooking methods of the same food item. For example, your child might not eat mashed potato but will eat a baked or roasted potato.
- Separate food items from one another. Use a plate with divisions which allows you to separate the spaghetti, mince and cheese when you have made spaghetti bolognaise.
- Give your child nice firm hugs. Deep pressure input is less threatening for a tactile defensive child.
- If your child doesn’t enjoy hugging, find other ways to show affection, such as a special pinkie-finger grasp or air-blown kisses.
- Encourage running and climbing outside, jumping on a trampoline, wrestling with dad, a pillow fight with their sibling, pushing the trolley at the shops. These activities give proprioceptive (the sense of self-movement and body position) inputs which assist in regulating the tactile system.
- Engage them in household tasks which may incidentally allow for tactile exploration such as meal preparations, helping in the garden or washing the car.
- Warn your child before you touch them unexpectedly.
- Use a firmer pressure and not light touch.
“Tactile defensiveness can be treated and can be improved,” Campbell says. “Treating it will lead to your child engaging better in activities of daily living, allow for better relationships with others, and decrease anxiety levels and emotional outbursts.”