Effective Replacement Behavior for Chewing on a Shirt

When babies begin to gain independence and explore their world, they go through an oral stage where they put everything in their mouths. This is how they learn about new things. It is also around this time that they begin the teething process and so, the chewing phase begins.

This oral stage usually ends around three years of age. However, you may notice your preschooler or school-age child chewing on the neckline, cuff, or hem of their shirt.

While this may be harmless and just a way for your child to seek self-regulation, sensory input, or a way for them to focus, if it is harming your child’s ability to participate in their daily life or if it poses a safety concern, then the cause of the chewing should be explored.

Once you understand the reason for the chewing, you can address it and find effective replacement behavior for chewing on their shirt.

What to Do if Your Child is Chewing on a Shirt?

Investigate the Cause

Begin by talking to your child in a non-judgmental manner. You want to find out if your child is aware of their behavior, why they think they do it, how it makes them feel, and how it helps them to chew on their shirt.

Try not to embarrass your child or make them feel ashamed for chewing on their shirt as they may internalize those feelings and think they are bad, messy, or dirty. The last thing you want is for them to incorporate those thoughts into their self-image.

Be gentle and let your child know you are genuinely curious about them and just want to know if there is anything they need or if you can help.

Communicate with their teacher or other caregivers. Ask them if they have noticed any patterns in your child’s chewing. Also, try to find out if there may be any teasing going on or signs of stress, anxiety, or social awkwardness.

Observe your child at home and in different situations to see if you recognize any triggers or patterns to their chewing.

Address the Issue

It Could Be Boredom

Sometimes, children chew on things out of boredom. They lack sensory stimulation and the closest thing to them is the collar or sleeve of their shirt, so they start chewing. If you discover this is your child’s case, then you can address the issue by redirecting the behavior.

Offer a fidget toy to keep them entertained. There are a variety of colorful, stimulating fidgets available for them to choose from.

Chewelry is soft, safe, chewable jewelry your child can resort to instead of chewing on their shirt. Chewelry can be necklaces, pendants, rings, or bracelets they can keep handy when boredom strikes.

Crunchy veggies or gum (if your child is old enough not to swallow) can be great, safe alternatives to chewing on their shirt.

The best option, however, is physical exercise, preferably outdoors. If your child lacks stimulation, outdoor play is an excellent way to get your child moving, engaged, and tired.

Offering art and craft supplies may also help stimulate their imaginations.

They May Be Hungry

asian boy eating breakfast

If you notice that your child chews on their shirt before snacking or before dinner, it may be merely a sign of them being hungry.

Offer them a healthy snack and keep them available for them to reach out for when hungry instead of them reaching out for their shirt.

They May Be Trying to Focus

Do they chew on their shirt while working on schoolwork or doing puzzles? They may be attempting to focus. Offer your child a fidget or chewelry to help them focus and keep their shirt intact.

It May be a Physical Issue

Chewing on their shirt may also have a physical explanation. If you suspect this to be the case, seeking the help of a professional may be necessary.

If your child is ingesting non-edible items while chewing, it may be due to pica or a nutritional deficiency. In this case, speaking to your pediatrician and requesting a health screening may be necessary.

A dentist or an orthodontist may also help if the reason they chew is for pain relief or because they have a sore area in their mouth that is only soothed by chewing or sucking on their shirt.

It May Be Due to Anxiety or Stress

father sitting with his children near a suitcase

If you notice your child begins to chew on their shirt before recess or before a play date, it may be a sign of nervousness or anxiety around social interaction.

Changes within the family, such as a new sibling, a move, a divorce, or a death in the family, could all be triggers for stress and anxiety.

Thankfully, there are a variety of ways you can help your child if the source of their chewing behavior is stress or anxiety.

  • Have a Conversation with Them. Encourage your child to talk about their problems and feelings. If this proves to be difficult for them, do an activity together while you talk. This is especially effective with boys.
    Be sure to listen to them before offering any advice or suggestions. Don’t dismiss their feelings. If your child opens up, try to empathize with them and validate the way they feel.
  • Get Outside. Enjoying fresh air regularly can boost your child’s mood and uplift their spirits. Being outdoors and getting some physical activity may help give your child a different perspective.
  • Have Consistent Routines. If your child suffers from anxiety, keeping a regular routine may help them curve their anxiety. Knowing what to expect and when may provide them with some much-needed peace of mind.

Therefore, maintain regular mealtimes, bedtimes, bath times, and anything else that can be scheduled into their daily routines. Some children may even benefit from a calendar or a visual schedule.

  • Encourage Healthy Habits. Encouraging your child to develop healthy habits can do wonders for their self-esteem. When you teach your child to eat healthily, get enough sleep, and practice good hygiene, you are teaching them self-love which can translate into a more confident child.
  • Don’t Overschedule Your Child. In an effort to keep children busy and stimulated, parents can sometimes overschedule their children. While keeping busy and engaged is excellent, children need to have time to free-play, have quiet time, and decompress.

Being constantly on the go can lead to anxiety and stress instead of them enjoying the activities they participate in.

  • Try to Avoid Political Ads and Unsettling News. It can be very difficult for children to wrap their minds around some of the information thrown at them from various news and TV ads. This can be a great source of anxiety for your child.

If they become exposed to upsetting topics. Take the time to talk to your child about them and listen to their concerns. Reassure them they are not in danger. Explain to them that certain natural disasters don’t happen in your area or show them how you are prepared for certain situations.

If they become upset about other people’s misfortunes, ask them if they’d like to figure out a way to help and work on it together. Coming up with a plan and getting them involved can leave them feeling calm and supported.

  • Be a Calm Example for Your Child. Modeling calm behavior and positive coping skills can help your child learn effective coping strategies. Never forget children are sponges and they are always looking to their parents for cues on how to behave.

Try to keep a calm home, or at least a calm bedtime routine. A peaceful, positive home is less likely to lead to anxiety in your child. Even if things are chaotic in the world, home can be their refuge.

  • Be Sure to Reach Out to a Professional If Needed. Never underestimate the importance of reaching out for help from a professional. Doing so will teach your child it is ok to admit when you are struggling.

Additionally, a professional may provide additional coping strategies and tools to assist your child in navigating stressful or anxiety-inducing situations.

Final Thoughts

Shirt-chewing can be a concerning behavior in your child. It may be frustrating to tell them to stop without results. While chewing on their shirt may be harmless, there may also be deeper reasons for such behavior.

Once you understand the reason for the chewing, you can address it and find effective replacement behavior for chewing on their shirt.

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