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Sensory Issues and Socks; One Mother's Solution

What do you do when your young child develops sensory issues that are both disruptive and frustrating?

My son, at age 7 and in second grade, had a big problem with socks. Like many children that age, he would sometimes hyper-fixate on random, arbitrary matters, mainly, I’m convinced, to test the stamina of his parents. In this case, it was socks. Big socks, small socks, short socks, tall socks. Red socks, blue socks, old socks, new socks. It didn’t matter; my son did not like socks. Not even in a box with a fox.

At the crux of the matter was the sensation of the sock. Every sock was too scratchy, stiff or bumpy. And, oh, the drama we had surrounding that awful seam across the toe; “Too lumpy, Mom, too lumpy!”

Few socks felt comfortable in his shoes, where they would bunch up, ride up, or slip down. It was maddening. Every morning was the same; I would call for him to get dressed and come down for breakfast, and he would remain in his bedroom waging a private war with an ever-growing pile of socks. School mornings would end with me screaming for him to just pick a sock, any sock; we’re going to be late! He’d grow increasingly anxious and as the minutes wound down he’d finally slip the best of the bunch onto his feet and trudge miserably down the stairs.

Many mornings ended in tears. Most mornings we missed breakfast and raised our voices. ALL mornings I felt consumed with crushing guilt that, once again, my son began his day in a state of distress. 

As a mother I should handle this better. But what was this? Was it a phase, a test, or something normal to just get through? Worse, was my son showing signs of an actual disorder? Could he have sensory issues? OCD? Was he somewhere on that dreaded spectrum? Maybe he just had his father’s stubbornness.

At night, my son would not want to remove his socks for fear of never finding another good sock. Once the socks were off, they were no longer good. At bath time, you could see the worry etched on his face as he’d mournfully pull the socks from his feet.

After much trial and error, I finally found the cure-all sock that passed all his exhaustive standards. These socks were thin, smooth, soft, snug, and had NO TOE SEAMS. It even said so in big words across the package, gladdening my heart because now I knew that “no toe seams” mattered to other people too.

When I showed the socks to my son you would have thought it was Christmas, his birthday and the first day of Red Sox season rolled into one. The package contained six pairs and so we both went to sleep that night knowing we had six happy, stress-free mornings coming our way. I woke up and made pancakes, and we ate them with plenty of time to walk to school.

That night I came to a realization. This problem was fixable—without doctors, tough love, or self-help books. The next morning I bought 100 pairs of those magical socks, blissfully paying $187.59 while picturing my World War II veteran grandfather shaking his head at the waste and absurdity of it all.

Together, my son and I emptied his sock drawer and lined up the new socks in five neat rows of ten, with an additional layer on top. My son went to sleep assured that, for the next 100 days, he would have a perfect pair of socks waiting for him in his drawer. Our nights were absent the arguments and stress, and our mornings flowed free and unfettered. He was dressed with time to spare. He could eat a full breakfast and shoot some hoops or catch a few balls with his brother before school. My blood pressure returned to normal and the screaming came to a halt.

The biggest surprise was that we hadn’t made it through half the socks before the issue disappeared and went by way of most childhood peculiarities—just an embarrassing anecdote to use at their weddings. By pair forty-something, my son started grabbing whatever socks were closest at hand. Dirty? Didn’t matter. His brother’s? Didn’t care. Toe seam? “Mom, that’s silly, who cares about that?”

For a moment, I indulged in that rarest event in all of motherhood: Validation. I had efficiently and effectively solved this problem with no lasting damage to my son. Nope, my son would not be reporting to some psychologist about how his mother deprived him of sufficient footwear, thus destroying any chance for his future happiness, success, or ability to sustain a healthy relationship.

I know my son could have reached this point without an enormous pile of new socks. And maybe my mother-in-law was right when she said my solution was typical of the parental indulgence that is ruining our society and future generations. But the way I see it, I single-handedly shut down forty-some days of anxiety, worry and angst for both my son and myself. I gifted us with forty-some nights of extra laughs and bedtime stories, and forty-some mornings of order, relaxation, and pancakes. There is a price for happiness after all, and in our case it was $187.59.

Sarah S. June 27, 2011 at 03:52 PM
Ah, the quirks of childhood. I've learned to just ride 'em out, they'll go as quickly as they came, and just as quickly be replaced by something else that will threaten to drive you insane. Have a glass of wine ... it's a long 18 years ... :-)
Rubylee Shuman June 27, 2011 at 05:23 PM
I agree with Sara --- there will be MANY more similar idiosyncrasies ---before you know it, his wife will ask you how YOU coped with them ---
Adrienne Kerman June 27, 2011 at 05:47 PM
@ Sara and Rubylee, it's nice to hear from two ladies who made it through and lived to tell about it! You give us all hope :-)
Leslie Johnston June 27, 2011 at 10:05 PM
In my house, it was constricting clothing that upset my daughter ... leggings, long sleeves, etc. She just didn't like the feel of clothing on her skin. Luckily, this phase presented itself during the summer when she could run around in short sleeves and shorts or skirts. It was long gone by Christmas.
llgilmer June 28, 2011 at 12:20 AM
I really love your writing. Did you try no socks? When you mentioned the drawer full of identical socks I had visions of "Monk" :) At least you wont be running out of socks any time soon. Who knows why kids develope fixations and sensitivities. Your sons are very lucky to have a Mom like you to help them adjust to this ctazy world.
Jennifer September 02, 2012 at 05:44 PM
I've been riding this out for almost 12 years, LOL! I seriously almost cry when a manufacture "discontinues" a sock or shirt that my daughter will wear. I'm in need of buying socks for my daughter again this school year, can someone please spare are family WWI, II, III, etc. and hand over the website to save us. Brushing and joint compression only help so much. Best of luck to everyone!
Darnelle Jacobson September 06, 2012 at 01:54 PM
Do you remember the Brand of socks that you found? I would SO LOVE to end our sock battles in the morning. :0)
Adrienne Kerman November 30, 2012 at 02:34 AM
Hi Darnelle, sorry it took me so long to see your comment. I don't recall the maker of the socks, but I know I got them at Target in the boys section and they literally have NO TOE SEAMS in big letters on the package. My son actually pointed them out the other day when we were there ... I wish I had paid more attention. I'll get back to you when I get the brand name. Can't believe I forgot, they saved my life! Hang in there ... this too shall pass :-)

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