Why Do My Stepchildren Nibble On My Shirt?

Photo by cplbasilisk - http://flic.kr/p/5JTPm9 - For illustration only

Reader’s Question

My 10-year-old stepson nibbles on my shirt and so does my 8-year-old stepdaughter. Is that normal behavior? They don’t break skin, they just nibble the front, shoulders and sleeves of the shirt.

Psychologist’s Reply

There could be a few different reasons underlying this behavior, or it could be something that is resolved as the kids grow out of it. You did not mention how long the behavior has been occurring or if they chew on other things as well. Sometimes when children want to chew on things it is related to a need for sensory input. Chewing on clothes can be part of something called sensory processing disorder (SPD), formerly known as sensory integration dysfunction. SPD is a condition that exists when sensory signals are not organized into appropriate responses, according to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation. A person with SPD finds it difficult to organize and act appropriately on information received from the five senses. In some cases this means seeking additional stimulation; others may feel overwhelmed by average or everyday sensory stimuli. One way of seeking additional tactile stimulation is chewing on things. Occupational therapists work with children who struggle with sensory concerns. There are actually items that can be obtained through an occupational therapist designed especially for children who feel a need to chew on things. There is not enough information in your question to determine whether your stepchildren have sensory processing problems. If they did, you would likely have noticed other problems, such as their ability to function and adapt to everyday situations, transitions, and demands. Research on SPD is emerging, as much is still unknown about this phenomenon. If you are concerned, you might read more on the site provided above, or consult with an occupational therapist or mental health practitioner.

Another psychological phenomenon that can result in kids and adults craving and eating non-food substances is called pica. With pica, substances such as cloth, dirt, clay, chalk, soap, and other things are actually ingested. If the children are simply chewing on shirts, it is unlikely that they have pica.

Finally, I was unclear whether the children were chewing on your clothes, their own clothes, or both. If they are chewing on only your clothes and no one else’s, there may be a relational or attention-seeking aspect to the behavior. In other words, they may be seeking a particular reaction (e.g. attention) from you or others by engaging in this behavior. When children are not receiving enough positive attention, they at times will seek negative attention. With kids, any attention is better than none at all! So if getting a big reaction, whether it is positive or negative, is something that results from the nibbling, you may inadvertently be reinforcing (i.e. rewarding) the behavior by reacting to it. If attention is the reward, the way to reduce the behavior would be to ignore it and find other, more positive ways to give them the attention they need.

Try Online Counseling: Get Personally Matched

However, if the chewing is not a way to seek attention, but instead is a result of nervousness or anxiety, ignoring would not be an appropriate reaction. If this is a time of change, transition, or stress, you would likely see nervous habits becoming more obvious. They might recede again when things settle down. If this is the case, it might be helpful to gently initiate a discussion about what might be stressful in the kids’ lives currently.

If the chewing is a way to use excess energy, like fidgeting, it may be that they can redirect their energy into other things or become aware of the habit and discontinue it.

Although I have provided a few psychological reasons why chewing clothing could occur, it very well could be just a habit that they have grown up with or grown into, such as nail biting.

A 10-year-old and 8-year-old are old enough to have a conversation about what you have noticed, how it affects you and others, and what is going on for them regarding this behavior. It might be a place to start as you decide whether to intervene or not.

Please read our Important Disclaimer.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. Originally published by on and last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

Ask the Psychologist provides direct access to qualified clinical psychologists ready to answer your questions. It is overseen by the same international advisory board of distinguished academic faculty and mental health professionals — with decades of clinical and research experience in the US, UK and Europe — that delivers CounsellingResource.com, providing peer-reviewed mental health information you can trust. Our material is not intended as a substitute for direct consultation with a qualified mental health professional. CounsellingResource.com is accredited by the Health on the Net Foundation.

Copyright © 2020.