Ask the Expert: It’s OK for Kids to Bare It All, Within Reason

Q. Is it OK for my child to run around the house naked? At what age should we worry about this behavior?

A. Most parents of young toddlers could easily produce a list of unusual, head-turning and often embarrassing tricks their children have performed. Topping the list for many is the all-too-common “strip-and-run-naked” act that often baffles parents or has them worried that surely this is the sign of a deviant in the works.

Relax. I’m happy to report that chances are good your child’s need to bare it all is right on target with age-appropriate development.
From 12 through 36 months, part of normal childhood development includes disrobing and parading through the house or yard in the suit your child wore when he entered the world. About the time kids hit 12 months, they become much more self-aware. They start to realize they are unique individuals who are separate from everyone else. You can almost see the little light go on as the thought “I’m different” grows and children act on their self-awareness. At that point, they become more sensitive and in tune with what they eat, how they look and what they do. They also pay more attention to what they wear or, as the case may be, choose not to wear!

During the same time this awareness of self is developing, a child’s fine motor skills are also improving. At the early stages of development, children may rip off their diapers. As they grow and their motor skills improve, they start to unbutton, unzip and take off their clothing. This is simply an act of self-awareness — the ability to express themselves and show they are different from other people.

While the tendency to go au naturel may be appropriate for toddlers, we still need to help children understand appropriate social norms and standards. For example, running bare naked in the house or in a secure backyard might not be a problem, but streaking through a public place is generally not socially acceptable behavior.
Besides the social stigma, public nudity can potentially put children at risk due to older children or adults who might try to take advantage of their behavior. Rather than scolding children for disrobing, help establish boundaries and teach them when the behavior is or is not appropriate.

As children grow through this developmental stage, the tendency to remove their clothing will diminish. Parents should be concerned if the behavior continues very long beyond about 36 months. Another concern is if the behavior includes any sexual innuendo — not a normal part of the development. If you see a child displaying sexualized behavior, you should take that seriously.

Talk to your child’s caregiver to find out if your child is exposed to inappropriate influences. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, consider where he might have learned that behavior. Maybe he was playing with the TV remote and saw something on a cable station. If the behavior continues or worsens, seek professional help. A visit to your pediatrician is a good place to start.

For children, the stage between 12 and 36 months is a time of real growth and self-awareness when they begin to express themselves and their own unique identity. Taking off their clothes is actually a good and healthy way for children to express that they are different. As parents, our role is to make sure we keep our children safe and teach them when it is appropriate to bare it all, and when they should keep it to themselves.

Nicolle Napier-Ionascu, Psy.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist at Presbyterian Hospital Rehabilitation Center and part of the adjunct faculty at Queens University of Charlotte.