Ask parents of preschoolers what it’s like to dress their kids every morning, and they’ll sigh and then share a litany of very specific—and ever changing—clothing demands. No jeans. Only sandals (despite the temperature outside). That one tattered Frozen dress, day after day after day.
And you can’t always see it coming: What was fine yesterday is suddenly verboten today. It can leave parents wondering what they’re doing wrong or, worse, if there is something bigger at play.
For Toronto dad Guy Smith*, clothing preferences surfaced almost as soon as his daughter, Ava*, now six, learned to speak her mind, around age two. Preschool Ava cycled through periods of “only sandals,” “only tights” and “only purple.”
“Her choices aren’t always rational,” Smith says. He tries to let Ava have her way, unless her clothes aren’t up to the weather—in which case, leaving the house can turn into a half-hour of frustration. And even after all that, Ava still often ends up heading outside without a coat.
“Within two minutes, she realizes she’s made the wrong decision. We sometimes turn back, if we have time,” Smith says. He suspects Ava isn’t fundamentally against jacket wearing or dressing appropriately for conditions outside—she just wants to have the last word.
The good news is that this is normal behaviour. In fact, it can be a red flag if your preschooler does not demonstrate some kind of assertiveness, says Kim Barthel, a Victoria-based occupational therapist. For most preschoolers, Barthel says, the refusal to wear certain clothes is a perfectly healthy stage of development. It can start as early as 18 months and often hits its peak between ages two and four.
“This age is all about individuation and developing their own sense of self,” Barthel says. Preschoolers are working out how they fit into the world, separate from their parents. Their clothes can be a large part of that effort.
My three-and-a-half-year-old twins give an indication of how different two kids can be. One of my daughters prefers outfits that often leave her looking like a wardrobe exploded in a riot of patterns. Let’s just say her style is “eclectic.”
My other daughter cannot stand to wear denim, hates tags inside her shirts and will rip at socks that have grips on the soles until she gets them off. Where one has style preferences, the other has distinct tactile boundaries.
For some children, their pickiness may not be as simple as a passing phase. Some kids cannot process the sensory input they’re experiencing—known as a sensory processing issue (SPI). While there is a lot of debate over whether sensory processing disorder should be its own diagnostic condition, one thing is certain: Preschoolers with SPI don’t process touch the same way as most people. The wrong item of clothing can hurt or annoy to the point of distraction.
“It becomes a pattern that goes beyond active toddler or preschooler assertion,” says Barthel.“It’s not just a complaint. It’s a consistent form of behaviour.”
Sensory processing issues often become apparent in toddlerhood, which is when many kids start having wardrobe meltdowns anyway. Children with SPI, however, are often sensitive to other things, too—like light, sound or movement—and the phase does not pass swiftly.
Some grow out of it as their sensory processing abilities mature. An occupational therapist can help parents understand and adapt to their child’s needs. In more severe cases, the child might require direct treatment to learn how to process what his or her body feels.
Whether you’re dealing with a typically headstrong preschooler or a child with SPI, it doesn’t mean you’re sentenced to endless morning tantrums. How kids cope with their clothing issues depends a lot on how you respond, Barthel says. “If you get irritated by your child’s behaviour, you’ll exacerbate it,” she warns. “Soothe and support. Don’t see it as a fight but as a need for structure and consistency.” React calmly and matter-of-factly without making a big deal. Tell your kid you’re aware he’s uncomfortable.
You may also want to consider broadening your sense of “acceptable” clothing and cede control a bit. Let your child wear the mismatched socks. Maybe that dinosaur shirt can be worn four days in a row. And don’t feel like a terrible parent if it’s your kid who’s still wearing shorts in late fall or who’s dressed in sparkles galore. We’ve all been there.
Surreptitiously bring backup clothes along. Slip the sweater in her bag; pop mittens in her coat pocket. “As long as she’s happy and healthy, try not to sweat it,” Smith says. “Every person deserves to have some agency.”
*Names changed by request.