Depending on your child’s age and issues, getting a haircut can be anything from a chore to a dreaded event that you put off, and then put it off a bit more. So many kids fear them: kids with ASD, kids with sensory issues, children that have had multiple hospitalizations or procedures, children with anxiety disorders. I have been asked by parents of children well into grade school to help them with the problem of getting their child to the barber or hairdresser without a major fight. My strategies are informed by my training as a pediatric OTR and as a Happiest Baby on the Block educator.
My approach to improving a child’s tolerance for a haircut is based on three goals: reduce the novelty of the experience, reduce the sensory impact of the haircut, and build their overall coping strategies based on their developmental level.
- You can borrow techniques from “exposure therapy” to make the experience of getting a haircut more familiar. The very first step could be making combing or brushing their hair a non-event. Explore what tool is the most comfortable for your child, and gradually introduce combs and even hair clippers. Let them turn the clippers on and off ( establish safety rules first) and let them hear the clippers both far away and close to their ears. Let them comb their hair first, then allow you to do so. Washing their hair in the bath is another experience that you can use for pretending that you are giving them a haircut. You can also get a bit wet and allow them to pretend to cut your hair. I have safety scissors that don’t cut anything but paper Lakeshore Scissors for Toddlers That Only Cut the Paper, Not the Toddler that work very well for this experience. Expand grooming so that it can happen at different times of the day and in different locations in your home. It needs to become as much of a non-issue as possible at home before a child is truly comfortable in the hair salon.
- Remember that the entire experience of receiving a haircut has strong sensory components: the salon and the sight, sound and smell of it’s other staff and customers, the tools used to cut hair, the feel of the chair and the drapes on your child. They can all be contributors to agitation and aversion. How can these be minimized? Early appointments might be less crowded, there may be ways to apply water or lotions to reduce the experience of being sprayed, or children can be actively involved in saying that they are ready rather than feel attacked when they don’t expect touch. Some kids just to be told before the event that their hair will be sprayed, or they need to feel in control of the timing. Your child may seem too old to sit on your lap, but it could help them stay calm. Ask if this is something they would like. Your hairdresser is interested in doing a good job without a lot of drama. Most of them will work with you.
- Many of the kids I see that struggle with haircuts also struggle handling frustration and anticipatory anxiety in general. They are used to big dramatic exchanges when asked to do the things that are expected of them that they CAN tolerate. These kids have often spent years developing a dance of refusal and opposition that they are now stuck in with their parents. In my sessions, they quickly learn that I don’t engage this way; I am a no-drama girl. I set limits and consequences, and I provide options so they feel they are working with me, not against me. I use Dr. Harvey Karp’s Fast Food Rule and use all of his “Feed The Meter” strategies Turn Around Toddler Defiance Using “Feed the Meter” Strategies to build a sense of compassion and communication. Both of these Happiest Toddler strategies work well with older children because anyone that is upset is thinking and behaving at a lower developmental level. My best strategy is simple: I stop a challenging task before a child has the chance to bail. I may introduce another task that is similar and still offers challenge. Stopping isn’t always ending the overall challenge. The child’s experience is that they don’t have to fight to get a break, as for support or have adjustments made. I am now their partner in learning to handle haircuts, dressing or nail cutting, not an authority making demands.
- Try not to minimize their distress, even if you can’t see why they feel that way. In Why Telling Your Toddler “It’s OK” Doesn’t Work (And What To Do Instead) , I wrote about how important it is to actively validate a child’s perspective. with children that have sensory issues, this is huge, absolutely huge.
It is my belief that if you can help a child handle the daily challenges of their life with compassion, respect and skill development, that child will trust that you can help them with the other events in life that make them frightened or overwhelmed. They have a new sense of how to manage their behavior, and believe that adults are resources for learning and partners in growth.
Looking for ideas on nail trimming or dressing as well? Read Why Cutting Nails Is Such a Challenge for Autistic and Sensory Kids and Dressing Without Tears: Sensory-Sensitive Strategies That Work
And don’t forget that my e-book on toilet training is out there to help you with this challenging skill: The Practical Guide To Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone isn’t just for kids with low tone; kids with ASD and sensory processing issues can use these strategies to build skills that help them make real progress quickly! You can buy my e-book on my website Tranquil Babies, at Your Therapy Source (a terrific site for OT workbooks and other products), and on Amazon.