I never cease to be amazed at how easy it is to solve potentially large behavior problems with just a little imagination. Case in point: a three-year-old girl whose aversion to wearing clothing was threatening to hold the entire family hostage. Her mother wrote the following:
Q: Beginning at around 21 months, our daughter started taking off all of her clothes, including her diaper, throughout the day, and this has continued for quite some time. She seems to find some kind of pleasure in being naked. We put her clothes back on, but she undresses herself several times a day. We did not make a big deal of this at first, but she is now almost three, and in addition to wanting to be naked, she also complains that her underwear does not fit right. We have tried many different brands and even allowed her to go without underwear when she wears pants. Most recently, she also says that her pants or shorts don’t fit right. The only thing she wants to wear is loose fitting pajama bottoms. Dresses are fine, but she does not want to wear underwear. If we try to force the issue, she cries and sometimes throws a full-blown tantrum. Please help!
A: This calls for a visit from my favorite imaginary therapist. Tell your daughter that you have spoken to “the Doctor” about the fact that she does not want to wear clothes, and he said she can be naked only in her room, not anywhere else in the house. Any time she wants to come out of her room, she has to put on her clothes.
Get over this hump first, I said. Then, when she is starting to get dressed in order to come out of her room, suggest that you would like to take her somewhere special. However, the Doctor says she can’t go anywhere away from the house unless she wears regular clothes, including underwear, like everyone else does.
Then you say, “Let me know when you are ready to go, and I’ll be glad to help you get dressed.” When she says she is ready to get dressed, help her without any fanfare or compliments about “what a good girl” she is. If she gives you any resistance while you’re helping her get dressed, simply say, “I guess we’ll have to try this another day.” Do not make any attempt to persuade, entice, bribe, or cajole her into wearing clothes. At the first sign of resistance, simply disengage and walk away.
Let my friend the Doctor be the authority figure here. In so doing, you avoid getting into a direct confrontation with her over this issue, which only serves to strengthen her resistance.
A month or so after giving this advice to the mother in question, she sent this update: “Your solution involving the Doctor worked without any problems from day one. She has not complained about clothing since. All I do is tell her, ‘I want to take you somewhere special. Here are your clothes. Let me know if you need help,’ and she puts her clothes on. Thank you for helping us prevent this issue from turning into a monster.”
I have to wonder how many other behavior monsters the Doctor could exterminate if he was called on in time.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.