Change Can Be Hard

The seasons are changing – daily, it seems, at the moment; I mean: what is up with the weather?! – and for a lot of people that marks a good time to go through their closet to evaluate their clothes. It’s no different for me, and I go through the process with my children as well.

With my teenage daughter, it’s surprisingly easy. She is unflinchingly honest about what she likes and what no longer works for her, and she has no trouble discarding what doesn’t belong in her closet anymore. To be fair, she’s had some practice recently, as she’s going through, like, the third growth spurt in a year and has had to change the contents of her closet accordingly several times throughout the past year.

My youngest, however, is a different creature altogether. He is 6 and has SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) and because of his particular sensibilities he tends to form quite a strong attachment to things: cuddly toys (as a lots of kids do) but also games, the coffee machine, and yes, his clothes. So while I might be disappointed when something no longer feels as comfortable to wear, or just isn’t in line with my style anymore even though I truly love the item in question, he will be devastated when that happens. As it is, he is not great with change, but this kind of thing is even harder for him when he has to help make the decisions and see things being removed.

Here’s the little dude, watching a Studio Ghibli favorite: Ponyo.

Now, before I continue, I should just note that this is specific to my son and not a defining trait in everyone who has SPD. I should also note that plenty of children who do not have SPD form deep attachments to things. I’m finding the things I’ve learned about my son’s SPD have helped me understand how these sorts of changes impact him. This post is only about my experiences with my son as we updated his closet, and for parents whose kids are similarly sensitive in this respect it may sound very recognizable.

Right, back to the closet. So my son is similarly going through a growth spurt, and has been growing out of things. Knowing how truly sad it can make him to part with things, I have been trying to make the process a little less painful by initially buying new items of underwear and new pairs of socks before filtering out the old ones. It’s one way to make the process a little less difficult for him, and to make it a little less obvious that some things will be going away for good.

But, as I said before, for certain things I will need him to actively participate in the process of taking out the old in order to evaluate what and how much new will be coming in. In order to make this manageable for him, I clearly set the parameters as well as the rules (“If it’s too small, it has to go”, “You never wear this, so let’s let someone else enjoy it.”). And before you ask: no, it does not help him to know that new clothes will be coming in to replace the ones that are going out. He is simply upset that the ones that have to go will be going.

Some of the items that didn’t make the cut were beloved staples. Others were items that he had grown out of before ever having worn them – this does not diminish his attachment to them. To him, it’s just the idea that these items are at home here and he feels awful when they are – in his mind – evicted. To him, each item has a soul, of sorts.

To my great surprise (and relief) the person who has helped me the most in this process is Marie Kondo. Her method of parting with things has actually made it possible for my son to make his peace with this particular change. After we had finished sorting, we put all the clothes that we would not be keeping on a pile and we thought of how to say goodbye to them, and so I found myself holding up about 20 different t-shirts, sweaters and pairs of pants so he could “thank them for their service”. There were genuine tears, which were not accompanied by loud cries and acting out; just five minutes of him silently crying on my shoulder until he felt like he had come to terms.

What also helped him was knowing that the clothes would be passed down to a boy who lives down the street and who will be happy to wear them. It makes the goodbye less definitive, and it gives him the idea that the clothes have found a new home rather than just having been discarded. It’s a little like grieving in stages.

My son’s SPD has actually illuminated certain things about myself as well. His attachment to things, his idea that things somehow have feelings is something I am sometimes guilty of too, and was much more so when I was a kid. Except back when I was growing up, SPD was not a thing. We were supposed to stop being silly and just get on with it. No one would take seriously a sense of loss when you had to part with something because, after all, it was just a thing. While there’s something to be said for that approach – the world is not necessarily going to take our sensitivities into account – I’m glad that we handle these things differently today. Diagnosing and observing my son have given me a way to communicate with him in a more friendly and effective way, and it’s also given me the tools to find a healthy balance there: acknowledging the sensitivities while teaching him how to deal with them constructively, so he’s able to handle himself when he gets older.

SPD or not, we could probably all use the space and time sometimes to deal with things that we find unexpectedly difficult, for whatever reason. Awareness and validation of those emotions can really help decrease the negative impact of just barreling through and provide some practical instruments to process change, and that’s something we all need.

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