One of my mom’s favorite stories to tell is how one of her children (not me) interrupted her while talking to a neighbor during a yard sale … by running across the street completely naked.
Most parents have a story to rival this one, because most toddlers hate wearing clothes. “If they want attention, they will do something to get it; sometimes that means getting in the buff,” says Dr. Julie Braciszewski, owner and director of Monarch Behavioral Health, PLLC in Bloomfield Hills.
Attention is just one of the many potential reasons your toddler is streaking. Braciszewski has some advice on how to stop the behavior in public – and why being naked in private is actually healthy for growing minds.
Why it’s natural to go au naturel
“Oftentimes, kids desire to explore the world without barriers, and removing clothing removes a physical barrier,” Braciszewski says. “They want to experience all of the sensory information that is around with their whole body – ‘How does splashing in water feel? How does sand feel between my toes or in my belly button? Does this soft carpet feel good on my naked back too?’
“It is natural to be naked while investigating and is part of the normal toddler sensory experience.”
Curiosity isn’t the only driving factor for toddlers’ clothing-disappearing acts. They could be annoyed by things we as adults get frustrated with – too many buttons, the swishing sound of corduroy, itchy tags and zippers. If you notice they’re stripping out of certain outfits more than others, consider ditching those fiber blends. Pay attention to the weather, too; they could simply be too hot.
Discomfort and exploration are the most common reasons behind getting in the buff, but seeking attention and control could also contribute to this behavior.
“Some kids look for skin-to-skin contact and positive affection. Others likely know they’ll get a reaction. Our responses drive what those kids do,” Braciszewski says.
Keeping things buttoned up
Even if occasional disrobing is beneficial to growing minds, there are boundaries that need to be drawn – specifically when kids are in public spaces. How you approach the situation is important to your child’s development.
“We want kids to develop positive body images. Take a step back and see this as a learning opportunity. You have to help your child learn that different social situations come with different expectations,” Braciszewski says.
The language you use when explaining these expectations is important. “We want positive reinforcement for our bodies, and we want to label body parts properly. Don’t use wishy-washy language. Use simple phrases like, ‘Your penis is only for the bathroom’ or ‘Your vagina is only for you to see and touch,'” Braciszewski suggests.
She also recommends using “if/then” phrases, such as, “If we keep on our bathing suits, then we can play in the pool.” These positive phrases suggest that wearing clothes results in the rewards of social interaction instead of suggesting nudity will get them in trouble.
It’s also helpful to create a story where a character wants to take off their clothes, but doesn’t and is much happier because of it. Finally, answer the “why not?” with ideas you’ve brought up before – being naked in public could be dangerous, they could get hurt or sick, and their bodies are for their eyes only.
When to get help
Ask yourself, “Is my child’s attitude toward nudity inconsistent with kids their age or our family dynamic? Is the way they play innocent or (is it) reminiscent of not-so-innocent acts?” If you answered yes, you may want to get professional help.
“There is a fine line between repetitive play and reenactment, and you need to figure out the line between body curiosity and things they have seen or experienced,” Braciszewski says.
That said, “Kids 4-6 do become more private and to want to be nude alone is perfectly natural,” she says – like changing clothes and taking baths. Most kids are curious about their bodies at this age and may experiment with masturbation, too. But doing this in an overly secretive way, such as hiding in a closet, could again be a sign your child’s trying to tell you something they’re too scared to say.
“Typically around 4, they understand situations where nudity is appropriate or inappropriate,” says Braciszewski. “Concerns come into play if there’s a reason (for nudity) beyond it feels comfortable.”
While there are extreme cases, for most kids, stripping is about exploring their world and getting funny reactions from mom and dad. The best way to put an end to this behavior – at least in public – is to use concise, positive language and help them to understand that different situations have different nudity protocols.
This post was originally published in 2019 and is updated regularly.