Positive Relationships: Behaviour - Coats on?

Cath Hunter
Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why do children resist wearing coats, and if it's necessary, how should adults persuade them to? Cath Hunter has advice for all childcarers.

Q: I often find myself wondering: why do children never seem to want to wear their coats? Some of the children in our nursery don't want to wear their coats in the outdoor area whatever the weather, and we don't know whether or not to insist. The problem is that some parents make their child put on their coat at collection times, and the whole business of wearing a coat has clearly become a battleground in some households. Do children feel too stifled or hot in their coats or are they trying to exercise their independence? And how should we respond?

A: Children's resistance to wearing a coat is a common problem that usually starts at around two years and continues well into their teens.

Much of adults' anxiety about children wearing their coats and 'catching cold' stems from the belief that children need to be wrapped up to keep warm. But colds are caused by a virus and contracted when in close contact with someone else who has a cold, not by being out in chilly air. And children are often in closer proximity to each other when they are playing together indoors than out.

Children are able to regulate their own body temperature much better than adults, and they rarely stand still long enough while they are outside to do anything other than keep warm. Just as an adult going for a run doesn't need layers of clothing to keep warm, so the same applies to children when playing outdoors.

Freedom of movement and expression is crucial for children. It explains why they sometimes fasten only the top button of their coat and don't put their arms in their sleeves, as being a superhero is far more important than worrying about being cold.

Some coats are too constraining for children and restrict their movement, resulting in huge resistance to wearing them, especially if the child feels stifled and overheated. It is an essential for their development that children are able to move freely, as this freedom helps them to socialise, builds confidence, allows them to express themselves, and increases their independence.


Children exercising their independence is often where the battle over coats starts. Around the age of two, children are showing their individuality and developing autonomy. They know what they want to do and enjoy doing things for themselves. When they are not able to do this, they get frustrated. The power struggle that often ensues as soon as putting on their coat is mentioned is a normal part of becoming independent. Not complying with adult requests some of the time should be seen as a healthy indication that a child is seeking independence, rather than as a reflection of their parents' incompetence or deliberate manipulation by children.

Some of the battles can be avoided, however, by practitioners ensuring consistency of approach between the nursery and home, and agreeing this with parents. Such a move will avoid conflicting opinions being expressed between staff or parents in front of them. It is essential, too, that adults model what they want the child to do - that is, wearing their coat if they are expecting the child to.

Check also that the children's parents are not vacillating between giving in to their child when they resist, or digging in their heels and turning it into a battle. An overly permissive or rigid approach may result in the child becoming more disobedient and make it even more difficult to encourage the child to co-operate.

Once you have agreed an approach, be sure that you're prepared to follow it through and avoid either nagging or negotiating with the child, as this teaches them that you don't expect compliance. Share the command in a clear, specific and positive way, stating the behaviour you want to see - for example, 'Please put your coat on so we can go outside.' If you are confident in the way that you express yourself, the child will do as you've asked. Then praise them, conveying your pleasure to them.

Remember that it is appropriate for children to test commands, and try to ignore minor protests and grumbles and focus on what they will do when they have their coat on - 'Do you want to go on the swing or play with the ball?' - as this can be a good way to distract them. It is a normal part of life to not always be happy about what you've been asked to do. The key to getting children to co-operate is to strike a healthy balance between being permissive or authoritarian.


For parents who have made wearing a coat an issue, I would say pick your battles carefully, especially around two- to three-year-olds, where everything can become a potential battle.

Ensure that the child doesn't develop a negative association with wearing a coat - 'This is what makes mummy cross or this is what stops me running around and having fun'.

Their coat needs to have positive associations. This can be helped by involving the child in choosing a coat to buy (from a small selection that the adult has chosen) - 'Do you want the red or the blue one?' Focus on how nice they look in it, so that wearing a coat is seen as positive and not just purely functional. This will promote the healthy development of self-care and self-image.

On a practical level, choose a coat that is easy for them to put on and fasten themselves, depending on their age. Steer clear of complicated fastenings, no matter how cute and trendy they look, as the ease of putting on the coat will increase the likelihood of the child wearing it. Resist the temptation to buy a coat just because you like the look of it.

As a general rule, dress the child as you would dress, according to the weather. Choose fabrics that are light and easy to move in, such as merino wool, polyester fleece and other materials that trap heat and absorb moisture.

At nursery, encourage the children to help each other with their coats if they need it. You could make a game out of who can get their coat on quicker, the adult or the child, as an additional incentive.

And when faced with a potential conflict, ask yourself, 'is this worth fighting over?' and save your energy and ammunition for bigger battles.

Cath Hunter works as a freelance play therapist across primary schools in the north-west. She also worked as a nursery nurse and childcare lecturer. Visit www.therapeuticfamilyinterventions.co.uk.

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