If you are a parent of a child with special needs, especially if it includes sensory processing issues, then you already know that haircuts are a difficult experience for your child. Getting a haircut is a major sensory experience for a child. When a child has a reduced ability to regulate the sensory experience, the brain reacts with a “fight or flight” response. The usual result is kicking, screaming, running away, or melting down. It becomes a very stressful event for the child, the parent, and the stylist.
I know one mom whose child was so upset by haircuts that he could only receive half a haircut at a time. The stylist generously allowed the mom to bring in her son a day or two later to complete the haircut. While this arrangement was not ideal for anyone, it got the job done.
There are ways to help children who have trouble tolerating haircuts. Read our tips from parents and Occupational Therapists who’ve lived and learned:
- For young children who don’t have a lot of experience, begin with a social story (try this one) or video (try YouTube) of a child getting a haircut. Repeat the story or video several times, until your child is very familiar with the routine.
- Role play using pretend scissors (try plastic salad tongs) and a doll. When your child is comfortable, ask him to allow you to use the pretend scissors on his head.
- A new environment can trigger meltdowns. If you have an appointment at a salon, make a practice visit a day or two before the appointment. See if you can meet the stylist in advance.
- If you are lucky enough to have a friend who is a hair stylist, ask them to cut your child’s hair at your home.
- There are child-friendly salons that have stylists trained to help children with autism and other special needs. Use an internet search engine to locate children’s hair salons in your area. Then call the salon and ask if any stylists are specially trained.
- In the hour or two before going to a salon, make sure your child has had a snack or a meal. A hungry child is more likely to melt down.
- Before the appointment time, make sure your child completes any sensory homework from their Occupational Therapist. Heavy work, deep pressure therapy, and other activities can calm the nervous system.
- During the appointment, bring anything you believe might help your child with their sensory needs. Try earplugs, such as the wax type for swimmers, if your child is sensitive to sounds. Bring a weighted blanket to keep on their lap. Snacks or juice boxes are also a good distraction.
- If the salon experience is not feasible for you and your child, consider learning how to cut your child’s hair at home. You do not have to take a course at cosmetology school to learn! Search for online videos and resources to help you learn this skill.
- When attempting to cut hair at home, I have found that the best time is after a bath and hair washing. Place your child on the floor surrounded by towels. I allow my child to watch a favorite TV show as a distraction. Then get to work as quickly and gently as you can. If your child needs a break, that’s fine. Continue when your child is calm.
- Whether the haircut is done in a salon or at home, you can offer your child a reward when the haircut is complete.
Not every tip may be applicable to your child or your family situation. Start with one or two ideas and see what works. Remember that your child’s Occupational Therapist may have additional suggestions to help. As always, we welcome your questions at All About Therapy in Raleigh. If you’d like your child to be evaluated in your home for Occupational Therapy, please call us at 919.448.6018.