A question recently came to Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, about what to do about children who are always trying to take their clothes off, especially in public. This particular parent asked:
“How do I get my child to keep their clothes on? They are constantly trying to take their clothes off. Whenever we go out in public or are around certain people, they are always trying to take their clothes off. It’s embarrassing! What do I do to help my kid keep their clothes on?”
This is a common occurrence in children, from toddlers to early teens. One of the first steps involves determining the motivation for removing clothing. Some common reasons are:
- Cultural norms or individual families having a fairly loose policy about clothing in the house. Young children will model what they see.
- No clear signs or signals about when it is appropriate or not appropriate to wear clothing. Sometimes children simply do not know what behavior is expected. This is especially true of children with any sort of developmental delay or who are not as socially aware. Starting around age 3 and definitely by the time they are in school, it is important for children to clearly understand when and where it is okay to take clothes off and when it is not.
- Poorly fitting clothes or sensory issues with tags or certain kinds of fabric, chemicals or detergents that react with a child’s skin can motivate taking these items off.
- The extra attention that can come as a result of taking clothes off. Some kids just love the reaction.
- There may be certain settings where a child is more or less likely to remove clothes.
- Being around certain people may trigger this behavior while others may prevent it.
- There may be types of clothing that a child particularly likes or dislikes. Clothing that a child loves is much more likely to be left on than something that isn’t comfortable or in some way displeasing to the child.
Recommendations for Helping Children Learn to Keep Their Clothes On
Once parents have a better understanding of what motivates a child to remove clothing, there are ways to deal with and modify that behavior. Suggestions from Dr. Boney about how to help your child keep their clothes on, include:
If your child really likes to have no clothes on, let them get their fill in an appropriate environment. This might be in the house when no company is present or restricted to a certain part of the house, like the upstairs. Parents need to be consistent in enforcing the rule, and they need to model the expected behavior themselves. The rule must apply to everyone.
Clearly, communicate exactly what behavior is expected. Children should be able to repeat back the rules about when it is appropriate to not wear clothes and when that is not okay.
Break the pattern with noncontingent reinforcement. If a child has a pattern of removing clothes about every hour and a half, at the one-hour mark tell them that it’s time to take their clothes off and run around without them. Not having clothes on is the reinforcer. This rewards the child without them having to engage in the behavior, the act of removing the clothing. Used strategically, this can eliminate the need to disrobe to get the reinforcer and you can shape and increase the intervals between the behavior.
Analyze the reason your child removes their clothes. This will likely be an experimental process and may take awhile to understand what is actually going on with your child. If there is a sensory issue with the type of clothing or something about it, you will need to make an appropriate change. If the child is seeking attention, obviously, it is important to teach appropriate attention-seeking behavior, such as the right way to ask for attention. Disrobing is certainly not a long-term, sustainable solution for getting attention.
With a child that continuously removes their clothing, Dr. Boney recommends performance-based consequences. This would mean immediately making them put their clothes back on and then requiring that they keep them on for a continuous amount of time. Then successively increasing that time interval for each time that the child takes their clothes off. For example, when the child inappropriately removes clothing, they are told that they will have to keep their clothes on for ten minutes in order to be able to watch TV. At the ten-minute mark, the TV goes on. But, the next time, it will take 20 minutes to get access to watching TV and the increments increase, between 20 -50% each time. This strategy makes keeping clothes on the only behavior that will result in access to the preferred reinforcer and is much more powerful than taking something away as a punishment.
For children that are too young or have some sort of cognitive delay that prevents them from fully understanding what you expect from them, you may want to purchase clothing that is more difficult to take off. A classic solution is putting a onesie on backward. Or just Google “clothing for children that is hard to take off”, and you will find tons of solutions. Of course, we want to be humane and find a loving balance that prevents younger children from too easily removing clothing until they understand what is appropriate.
Utilizing evidence-based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment, and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies, and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions about the Scottsdale Children’s Institute or how to help your child learn to keep their clothes on, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.