The Princess and the Pea

Posted: February 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Discoveries, Doctors, Husbandry, Miss Kate, Parenting | 10 Comments »

Kate wore a leotard, tights, and a tutu to ballet class this week. This might seem un-spectacular to you. I mean, she looked just like all the other girls. But to me—or rather, for Kate? Well, suffice it to say, it blew my mind.

It’s not that Kate’s a tom boy. She’s actually (unfortunately) quite smitten with princesses, ballerinas, and all things girly.

And it’s not that by refusing to wear ballet clothes in the past she was trying to stand out, or make some kinda of fashion statement.

It’s not even that she’s a nudist. Though God knows the nudist lifestyle would be sheer bliss for the girl.

The thing with Kate is that she hates clothes. The way some kids hate the monster under their bed, or getting a shot at the doctor’s, or having their nails clipped. Kate’s biggest enemy, fear, and anxiety-provoking thing is clothing.

And I only wish I were kidding. For Kate clothes are tight. They are itchy. They are binding and clingy and uncomfortable. Sometimes they even feel like they’re choking her.

So in that way that you adapt as a parent—when you, say, know that your kid will only drink milk if it’s chocolate milk and even though it’s embarrassing to admit around other parents, you know you need to get milk into your kid so you relent—in that kinda way I’ve flexed to Kate’s clothing issues. Which is to say she owns nothing with a zipper or buttons. Nothing with an iron-on decal or sewn-on applique. And if it once had a tag in it, you can bet it no longer does. (Paige is the heir to Kate’s vast wardrobe, much of it never worn. Unfortunately the size of each garment is an utter mystery.)

If Kate has shown willingness to wear a certain kind of shirt, I go to back to the store and buy five more. When she finds an acceptable pair of shoes she wears them every day, for months. (Despite the fact that her closet teems with other options.) Once I asked my mother-in-law to buy more of a certain kind of socks she’d given Kate, and mail them to us from in Ohio. When we find success with something, we lay in supplies.

But sometimes even those things don’t work. A previously approved t-shirt will go through the laundry and come out shrunken, or wrinkled, or the seams will suddenly expose themselves like Medusa’s snakes, slithering along the sensitive surface of Kate’s skin.

As you might imagine, this makes mornings ’round here especially stressful. I long for the standard-issue manic mornings other families wrangle with. I wish packing a lunch and getting everyone’s teeth brushed were the pressure points Chez McClusky. (This Motherboard story made me jealous of how easy everyone else’s bad mornings would seem to us.)

Inevitably breakfast ends, and as we lower the oatmeal bowls into the sink we utter the emotionally-charged sentence, “Time to get dressed, Kate.” And by “we” I mean Mark.

Because when Outfit #3 is rejected, when the contents of her closet and drawers are on the floor, and we’ve got only five minutes left to get to school and Kate is in a full-bore melter, I don’t perform well. Mark has better luck coaching an acceptable dress onto Kate’s back, and then, miraculously, not one but TWO socks (why were we plagued as bi-peds?), and on top of those, as if for extra credit, shoes.

For a long while Mark insisted Kate’s morning clothing meltdowns were power plays. Attempts to gum up the works when we were so close to getting somewhere on time. Mark tried tough love. We set up sticker charts with long-term toy incentives. And, as shameful as it is to admit, in moments of abject frustration, I even broke down, begging Kate to please please tell me what it was. Why couldn’t she just get dressed like other kids?

Is it crazy to say that you can go on like this for a while? That you can be aware of a problem, be tortured by it, but also just live with it?

But slowly flags started getting raised. I imagined what a house guest of ours was thinking as she observed our ritualistic morning dance around Kate getting dressed. This is so not normal, I thought. And my maternal neuroses were mounting around sending her to school in skimpy sundresses on cold days, rain boots on sunny days, and baggy dresses and bare feet for ballet.

My friend Mary told me, “No one’s looking at your kid as much as you are. I’m sure people don’t even notice.” So true.

But still, I worried about how this childhood issue could solidify in Kate’s psyche. Or grow worse. I envisioned a lifetime of Kate being out of step. I imagined her wearing bunny slippers on her prom night, and a muumuu on her wedding day.

And her love of ballet and gymnastics was already being threatened by her anxiety about the clothing they required. Dozens of times the getting dressed pre-class stress brought about a defeated “I don’t even want to go.” And the couple times I recklessly threatened to take her out of those classes, she’d be so upset she’d just say “Good.”

Then one morning, finally dressed, coat and backpack on, but still weepy standing by the front door, Kate looked at me and said, “You and Daddy just don’t understand.”

Which, as you can imagine, broke my heart into a million billion pieces.

So I called the doctor. Was Mark right? Did Kate need some tough love? Was I right? Was something really wrong with her?

Maybe, he said, we were both kinda right. (Or both wrong, depending on how you look at it.) Kate’s getting-dressed dramas could be 50% power play and 50% Something Else. Or 30/70 or 90/10. But to determine what that Something Else could be, we’d need a specialist. So he referred me to an Occupational Therapist.

I gave her the run-down on Kate’s Great Clothing Freak-Outs over the phone. And for every question she asked me that I answered “no” to, I was thrilled. There’s nothing better than realizing things could be worse. Much worse.

The therapist thought Kate might have a mild case of something called Sensory Defensiveness. (It’s not the bigger, scarier Sensory Integration thing I’ve heard about. Phew.) She described it this way: When people with Sensory Defensiveness are touched by something that doesn’t feel good, instead of saying, “This is itchy, I’ll take it off now,” they go into a sudden full-bore panic. They have an extreme emotional reaction. It’s like they have to claw it off their body.

Why yes. Sounds like Kate.

This defensiveness can extend to other things, like not being able to be touched or hugged or washed. Or freaking out at the feeling of rain on your skin. And it can extend to other senses too. But blessedly, the OT’s long line of questions showed that what Kate’s got is pretty limited in scope.

What ensued was an in-person assessment at this woman’s office. She played little games with Kate. She blindfolded her then poked her with the sharp and dull end of a paperclip, seeing if she could tell the difference. She tested Kate’s core strength, and asked whether she could make out letters that were drawn on her back.

And then she gave us a brush. A little yellow thing that’s actually used to clean the silk off of corn cobs.

She taught me how to brush Kate’s skin a certain way. I also had to do these weird joint compressions. Hold her thigh with one hand and her shin with the other and kinda press them together towards her knees. But do it on her shoulders, arms, and ankles too.

Kate didn’t seem to mind it. I think the brush part actually felt like a little massage. Which was good seeing as we’d have to do this to Kate every two hours. Waking hours, that is. For two weeks.

The OT’s other directive was that firmer touch was better. Firm hugs. Firmly drying Kate off after baths, wrapping her up tight in her towel. No light, gentle ticklish touch.

Walking to the car, I felt optimistic. But I also felt sorry for myself. Selfish, I know. But I was staring down the barrel at our Christmas vacation. Two weeks at home in Oakland. Two weeks brushing Kate every two hours.

It didn’t sound like fun. But I was holding out hope that this little damn corn silk brush could be our—or rather, Kate’s—salvation. And we were willing to try anything.

We brushed. Unsurprisingly there were no immediate results. But even going to the OT, even knowing that other kids had struggles like Kate did, seemed to help us all. Finally Mark and I had something to channel our parenting energy towards, instead of spinning and fuming and disagreeing on how to handle it.

Getting dressed over vacation got easier. Mark was off work too. He drew upon a wellspring of paternal patience and went into Kate’s room with her every morning to help her get dressed. He was so focused on making mornings more successful he was like a yogi doing some kind of heart-rate-slowing breathing. He was Houdini, hell-bent on helping Kate get into her shackles (or rather, her clothes) tear and stress-free.

After two weeks I called the OT. Did the brushing help? I wasn’t sure. She was getting dressed with less drama. But I’d also taken a ton of the clothes that I know set her off out of her room. Was it just that we didn’t need to bust ass during vacation to get out of the house? Or that we all knew this was a problem we were working to solve? Or did the brush really de-sensitize or reprogram her nerve endings somehow? I reported that Mark seemed to think things were better.

But I was too fearful to admit any degree of success.

She said to reduce the brushing and joint compression to three times a day. Which at first I did, but then somehow we fell off the wagon. Today the brush is sitting on Kate’s bureau, essentially forgotten.

And now enough weeks have gone by without morning dramas that I’m finally waking up to our new reality. I’m such a jinxy scaredy-cat parent that I was fearful to even utter the words. But last night sitting on the couch after the kids went to bed I turned to Mark. “Kate, and the clothes thing…” I didn’t even finish the sentence.

“I know!” he said. “I know.”

And then we both reached toward the coffee table to knock wood.


10 Comments on “The Princess and the Pea”

  1. 1 Rona said at 5:19 pm on February 17th, 2011:

    This is such a great example of what parents in more homes then you can imagine face daily with their kids who are highly sensitive. The fist step is to understand what it’s like for them, then to find ways to adapt to what they need, and help them stretch their tolerance so they can live more comfortably in this overstimulating world! Good job Kristen! Another strategy might be to have a dress rehearsal of sorts at night, so she can try on her clothes for the morning to be sure they feel good. This will only work if she doesn’t wake up with new sensitivities. Some parents even have their kids go to bed in clothes that they’ll wear to school, and then they’re ready in the morning without any fuss. This works well with cotton pants and shirts that don’t wrinkle too much. Listen to the show on this topic live Sunday or on-line at

  2. 2 kristen said at 7:09 pm on February 17th, 2011:

    Cool, Rona!

    For those of you who don’t know her, Rona (a.k.a. “Nurse Rona”) has a radio show called Childhood Matters that airs Sundays from 7:00-8:00AM at 98.1 KISS-FM. I love it. If you’re lucky enough to be able to sleep late on Sunday mornings you can listen to it on her site. (I might just call in this weekend since the topic is clearly near and dear to me.)

    And thanks for the tips and the props, Rona!

  3. 3 Mary said at 9:52 pm on February 17th, 2011:

    I’m in the blog! Yay! Unless there is another Mary out there who lets her kids go out in the winter in sundresses and tells herself that no one is noticing, no one is noticing. So glad to hear it is going better, I’ve been meaning to check in. I’m going to have a kid sized t-shirt made with the sentence “Everything is a Phase” on it.

  4. 4 Nell said at 6:46 am on February 18th, 2011:

    Kristen, so glad this worked itself out! I can identify with this completely…our middle son had almost identical issues. We coped by letting him wear sweats instead of baseball uniform pants, put off starting taekwondo when he wouldn’t wear the uniform, and still buy freakishly expensive socks. There were many days, trying to get two parents and three kids out of the house by 7 AM, that I wished he could just throw on a skirt and be done with it! Rona’s tip about letting them sleep in their clothes for the next day worked brilliantly for us. I would also add that many kids like this are super sensitive to bath temps- my husband likes very hot water and used to get furious over our son’s “drama” about how the shower was too hot. But in the end, like you, we realized that it wasn’t “attitude” or “power plays” but some genuine distress. Now, at almost 7, he will at least try things on without a fight, although he still has very strong preferences and sometimes doesn’t leave “new” clothes on long!

  5. 5 nell said at 6:48 am on February 18th, 2011:

    Oh, and I forgot to add that it was exactly this issue that led to the infamous “No Pants Day” during which the kid stripped off his clothes on the front lawn, in protest of what I had forced him into wearing…

  6. 6 kristen said at 7:51 pm on February 18th, 2011:

    Mary–hilarious!! I will buy 2 of the t-shirts you mention for sure. Well, as long as they are soft soft cotton and don’t have tags.

    Nell, so interesting to hear of your similar struggles. I would happily put Kate to sleep in school clothes but she insists on sleeping in her panties, as if she’s 23 years old and living in New York City.

    When we had an early AM flight once and K refused to get dressed we drove to the airport with her in panties. Then in the long term parking lot she still refused to get dressed. We put on a good show for the shuttle bus riders!

    I’m planning an arranged marriage between her and your middle son. Cool?

    P.S. Mazel tov about your new post!! The West Coast welcomes you home!

  7. 7 Daryl Lynn said at 2:40 pm on February 19th, 2011:

    clothing for kids with sensory issues – started by a special ed teacher. marjorie mentioned them a while back.

  8. 8 Leslee said at 4:18 pm on February 19th, 2011:

    You will be happy to hear that most of these kids outgrow their clothing issues and/or are able to deal with them better as they age. My son is now 17 and he spent one winter without socks in order to get out the door on time. We live in the midwest and winter snowpants and coats/mittens usually had us all in tears. If we could have moved to a tropical climate with t-shirts, shorts and no shoes I think I would have.

  9. 9 kristen said at 10:20 pm on March 2nd, 2011:

    yes, leslee, when we were in nyc on vacation once, kate refused to put shoes or socks on. we were going to miss our flight, so we figured we’d play tough and tell her she could go outside barefoot. of course, that only took the tantrum out into public! i kept thinking we are lucky to live in california where we don’t have to deal with winter coats, hats, boots.
    and it’s great to hear kids grow out of this!

  10. 10 kristen said at 10:24 pm on March 2nd, 2011:

    thanks for the clothing tip, daryl. the clothes are actually cute too!
    and i love that they have seamless socks. kate does this thing where she insists on wearing her socks inside out. somehow it dodges some seam or something touching her in an annoying way.

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