Haircuts are not always fun for young kids, but for kids with sensory sensitivities, they can feel like downright torture.
Today I am teaming up with the “Functional Skills for Kids” bloggers to share tips with you on the topic of self-care. My topic? Haircuts!
This post contains affiliate links for your convenience (see full disclosure here).
HOW HAIRCUTS RELATE TO OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY
One of the things I get to do as a clinic-based pediatric occupational therapist is to support and collaborate with parents so they can help their children more fully participate in daily living activities and in the community.
This includes haircuts.
Research has shown that many children with Autism tend to demonstrate unusual sensory responses (e.g., over-response or under-response) to touch and auditory stimulation.
So it’s no surprise that, when working with children with Autism and/or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), I often hear things like, “My child hates haircuts and it is absolutely THE most awful experience for everyone involved. It is such an ordeal and there is always a ton of kicking and screaming. I always feel so guilty and so bad for hairdresser, so I end up paying a huge tip as a way of apologizing at the end. Do you have any suggestions to help? What do I do?!”
WHY HAIRCUTS FEEL LIKE TORTURE FOR “SENSORY KIDS”
Haircuts involve pretty much everything that is terrifying to the sensory-sensitive child!
“Light touch” dominates the haircutting experience as the cape, hair dresser’s fingers, comb, scissors, and lightly buzzing clippers all surround the child’s neck, ears, and head. This can be not only scary but also “painful” for sensitive kids. And what’s worse is that most of these things occur behind the child’s head where they can’t be seen and can come upon them rather unexpectedly. Talk about feeling like you have no control over your sensory situation! These types of sensory experiences involving light touch can cause sensory-sensitive kids to go into “fight or flight” mode. This means the child’s heart rate increases, their palms may become sweaty, and they go into defense mode which may involve screaming, hitting, kicking, or more (depending on the child). That is definitely not what you want when around scissors and clippers, right?
Noises and auditory experiences also play a huge role in haircuts, which can be scary for sensory-sensitive kids. Because our auditory system is a “survival system” that alerts us to potential dangers before we can even see them or touch them, it is a prime candidate for making haircuts extremely challenging for kids who are already sensitive to noise (especially in a new environment). Think about it. What sounds are typically present in a hair salon? Scissors snipping around your head and right by your ears. A water bottle squirting behind your head. Clippers buzzing all around. Hair dryers blowing behind you, in your face, or at the booth next to you. And the general hum and noise of a business going about its usual day.
The combination of these auditory and light tactile experiences can be too much for some kids to bear.
In addition to the previously mentioned challenging sensory experiences, haircuts also tend to involve a lot of unknowns. This can increase anxiety and fear even more for kids who are sensory-sensitive. As adults, we tend to know what will typically happen during a haircut, even if we are in a new environment with a new person. However, because young kids have significantly less experience with haircuts than adults and because getting a haircut is not a “normal” part of their daily or weekly routine, the haircutting environment and experience is likely a bit unfamiliar and unpredictable to them. New environments and experiences can be overwhelming and even downright frightening for kids who are sensitive to noise and touch. Combine that with the fact that they have no idea how long it will last and whether they will make it out of that salon chair unscathed, and you are just asking for them to have an unpleasant time. No one wants that!
HOW TO HELP KIDS WHO HATE HAIRCUTS
Occupational therapy practitioners can assist families in implementing both preventative strategies as well as interventions for activities such as haircutting. This can include making modifications to the environment or the task (aka – the haircut), as well as providing intervention directly to the child.
Here is a list of 30 strategies to help kids who are very sensitive to and/or avoidant of getting hair cuts!
It includes a combination of sensory-based and cognitive-based suggestions. Think of this as a “menu” of options to consider, rather than a strict list to follow. Not every single suggestion will apply to your child. But, based on the knowledge you (and your child’s OT, if applicable) have of your child, hopefully this list will help open your eyes to some new options to make haircuts a little less miserable!
Before the haircut:
1-Role play haircuts with your child. Much like pretending to give a medical checkup with a toy stethoscope, you can give pretend haircuts to each other or even with stuffed animals. Try using your hands or even clackety salad tongs as pretend scissors. Just don’t offer real scissors during this time unless you actually want something to get cut!
2-Be intentional about the words you use. The word “cut” may invoke additional undue fear leading up to the big day. Or it may cause confusion — you may always tell your child scissors aren’t safe, and then all of a sudden you are wanting her to be okay with scissors coming toward his head to cut at him?! Consider using other phrases such as they are going to “get a trim”, “get handsome hair”, “get pretty hair”, or “get a handsome/pretty hairdo”!
3-Use social stories to help your child become more familiar with what will occur during a haircut. You can learn more about what a social story is and how it works at CarolGraySocialStories.com. And you can learn more about a social story app that covers the topic of haircuts called “Model Me Going Places” at YourKidsOT.com.
4-Read books about getting haircuts. Here is one example, written by a pediatric OT!
5-Have your child watch videos of kids getting their hair cut (such as a friend, sibling, or even videos on YouTube). This can help take out some of the mystery and fear, plus they can re-watch as many times as they need.
6-Look into specially designed hair clipping products, such as The Calming Clipper. I’ve heard mixed reviews from parents of kids with autism or sensory sensitivities, but it’s at least something to know about!
7-Bring your child with you to observe you or a family member getting their hair cut.
8-Stop by the haircut site a day or more prior to the haircut so your child knows what the facility looks like. If you know of a child-friendly salon in your area, check it out for yourself to see what you and your kiddo think about it.
9-See if your child can meet the hairdresser prior to the haircut if possible. It’s so helpful for the hairdresser to have a basic understanding of your child’s sensory sensitivities!
10-Try to schedule the haircut appointment at a time of day your child is most happy and calm, and/or when the hair salon is least busy. This may differ for each child (morning vs. after naptime) and each salon (weekday or weekend morning vs. evening).
11-Consider having a friend do the haircut at your house (if they’re any good!). This can help eliminate the anxiety or fear that comes with visiting a new place or transitioning out of the house. If your child benefits from knowing the schedule, then make sure this at-home “appointment” is in their schedule ahead of time. It helps if your friend is a familiar person your child is comfortable with.
12-If your child has a specific sensory diet their OT has recommended to help with calming (such as a deep pressure brushing program or certain types of heavy work), be sure to complete that prior to the haircut. We want to do everything we can to help place him or her in an optimal state of arousal prior to this experience.
13-Use visuals or a visual schedule if needed so your child can see what will be occurring before, during, and after the hair cut. If you’re new to visual schedules, here’s a post with all sorts of free visual schedule resources!
14-For boys, consider whether a buzz cut will be easier than one that involves sharp and snippy scissors.
15-For girls, simpler is better. Consider whether there is a certain basic hairstyle or haircut that is least (or most) noxious for your child. Short hair and short bangs can be good for some, but long hair can also be good because it can be pulled back. Up to you!
During the haircut:
1-Bring your own haircutting cape if needed. You can use a familiar towel from home and then secure it with a safety pin, clothespin, or chip clip.
2-Have your child wear a button-up or zip-up top if possible (with a shirt underneath), so it can be removed as soon as the haircut is over. We all know how those tiny hair remnants can fly off the shoulders of your shirt and make your neck itch like crazy…TORTURE for a sensory-sensitive kid!
3-Bring your child’s weighted blanket, lap pad, or shoulder pad for additional calming sensory input. It can be worn in the minutes leading up to as well as during the haircut.
4-Allow your child to sit in your lap if needed. It’s up to the hairdresser, but if the child is sitting in your lap and is facing you, it will give the hairdresser better access to the back of their head.
5-You or the hairdresser can provide deep pressure to the scalp and neck prior to the hair cut, which can help “calm down” the sensitivity response on the skin. Examples could include a scalp/neck massage or even use of a vibrating hairbrush (did you even know those existed?!).
6-Help your child engage in their “calming sequence” if they have one, prior to the clippers actually touching their head. This may involve deep breathing, hand squeezes, playing with a fidget item, or reciting a calming phrase.
7-Use visuals during the haircut visit. If you know the basic sequence that will be performed, you can have that available so your child knows where they are at in the sequence and what steps still need to be completed before it’s finished. For example: sit in chair, cape on, spray hair, buzzing clippers and/or scissors, hair dryer, cape off, all done chair, prize (reinforcer). If you need to, you could even have each step as a Velcro icon on a sequence strip. After each step is done, either you or your child could be responsible for pulling the icon off and sticking it to the back of the strip to signify that part is “all done”.
8-If the noise of the scissors or clippers bothers your child, find a way to block out or muffle the noise. You can try using wax earplugs (like the ones used for swimming) or earbuds with calming music. Or, if your child is comfortable with it, you can cover their ears for them with some nice deep pressure as part of it.
9-Have your child bring one or a few preferred items into the haircutting chair, such as a handheld toy, book, or video.
10-Bring a snack that will help keep your child still such as a fruit pouch, cup with a no-spill straw, Goldfish crackers, etc. You could even try to provide enough snack in order to last the whole haircut. Coordinate with the hairdresser so they know that when the snack or drink is gone, the haircut is over. Just be sure you give them enough time to actually get the job done!
11-If your child finds oral input to be comforting, provide them with their preferred oral calming tool (e.g., pacifier, gum, chewable necklace, handheld chewy, sucker, Ring Pop, etc.).
12-Sometimes being able to see oneself in the mirror can help because you can see what’s going on around you. It can help it not feel like there is an unknown event occurring on or around your head. However, for some kids, this can make things more scary as they see tools coming up to their head and face. So it’s up to you and what you know of your child, to determine whether looking into the mirror is a good idea or bad idea. If the mirror is a bad idea for your kiddo, you can try having them watch a video or look at a favorite book throughout the haircut instead.
13-If you know or can plan how long the haircut will take, use a visual timer to help your child understand how long the haircut will last. You can also use a music playlist or video of a certain duration (say 10 minutes), so once the video or playlist is done, the haircut is done.
After the haircut:
1-Build consistency into the haircutting routine by visiting the same salon each time (and have the same stylist if possible). This will help build a greater level of predictability and familiarity.
2-Provide a tangible reward or fun/preferred activity directly after the hair cut. This could be something edible or maybe a short trip to a special place (e.g., frozen yogurt, favorite park or playground, Grandma’s house, etc.).
MORE HELPFUL INFORMATION RELATED TO KIDS AND SELF-CARE
Here is more information in this month’s series to help you support the children and adolescents in your life!
Task Analysis – Independent Bathing in Children | Your Therapy Source
Tips and Tricks for Teaching Hand Washing with Kids | Growing Hands-On Kids
I can brush my teeth! Tips for Tooth Brushing and Oral Care! | Your Kids OT
Screen Free Quiet Time When Daytime Naps are History | Kids Play Space
Tips to Help Kids Learn How to Blow Their Nose | Sugar Aunts
Tips to Help Kids Who Hate Haircuts | Mama OT
Sensory Friendly Tips for Kids Who Have Trouble Sleeping | The Inspired Treehouse
Adolescent Hygiene Challenges | Therapy Fun Zone
Case-Smith, J., & Arbesman, M. (2008). Evidence-based review of interventions for autism used in or of relevance to occupational therapy. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62(4), 416–429. doi:10.5014/ajot.62.4.416
Delaney, T. (2008). The Sensory Processing Disorder Answer Book: Practical answers to the top 250 questions parents ask. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc.