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Sensory Needs + Haircuts!

So often I hear…’My Child hates haircuts- he/she cries, kicks and screams the whole time’ ‘It is such a stressful experience for him, me and the hair dresser!’ Does this sound familiar to you??

I am writing this blogpost not only from an occupational therapy perspective but from the perspective of a parent who has been there for more than a couple of years. I want to explain why it is so difficult for our kids and to give you some hopefully helpful tips and advice and also to reassure you that…

it can improve and get easier! I now have a child who whilst he doesn’t love having his haircut he is content and calm and happy to sit for the short amount of time that it takes.

Haircuts can be a challenge for a lot of young children but for kids with sensory processing difficulties they can be a complete nightmare and even painful! If you think about it, the whole experience is very ovetimulating and this is only amplified for the child with sensory processing difficulties. Lets think about the environment to begin with; hair salons are often busy, the lights are bright and there is lots of noise- hairdryers, running water, chatter, a radio playing in the background, a buzzer to name just a few! Imagine what this must be like for a child who has difficulty with auditory processing or one who has an aversion to bright lights. Add to this the fact that it is a new and unfamiliar environment for the child, one in which they are outside of their comfort zone and safety net.

Lets now think about the task in hand- the hair cut! A lot of our kids with sensory processing difficulties are very sensitive to touch- many prefer firm touch or deep pressure. With hair cutting there can be a lot of light touch- from the cape being placed on your child’s shoulders, to the hairdressers fingers or scissors grazing the back of the neck, to hairs falling on the child’s skin. For children who are super sensitive to touch all of this can be physically painful for them. If they are having their hair washed as well as cut this can further heighten the sensory overwhelm. Not only do many kids struggle with having their hair washed but the smells from the shampoos and conditioners can also be overpowering. A lot of our children with sensory challenges like to know what is coming next and are driven by routine. Hair cutting is most often completed from behind- the child cannot see what is happening or what is coming next which can add to their stress and anxiety.

A combination of these factors can lead very quickly to sensory overstimulation which in turn can cause a flight or fight response in your child. This is why we see the kicking, the screaming, the crying, the attempts to run away.

So…what can we do to help our children with this experience and help to ease the stress and anxiety they are experiencing?

First of all, do your research on local salons. Telephone and ask to speak with the manager. Explain that your child has difficulty with visiting the hairdresser/ barber and ask do they offer appointments at a quiet time of the day or private appointments. Ask the hairdresser is it possible to visit with no obligation to get your child’s hair cut and simply use this visit to allow your child to sit on the chair, wear the cape, try the buzzer, feel the hairbrush etc. We were given the opportunity to do this in our local barbers and this was the breakthrough moment for us ( a big shout out to the two Sineads Sinead Duffy (@boyz2menbarbers1) and TLC (@talking_language_communication). It made the whole experience more like a game and took away the fear factor. If your child is there and decides they would like their hair cut…go with it! If not… make an appointment to come back, at least next time it won’t be an unfamiliar environment.

Prior to your child’s appointment consider bringing him/her with you to watch you have your hair cut or a sibling have their hair cut. Role play at home- set up a salon in the living room, take it in turns to be the hairdresser, chat about what will happen. If your child responds well to videos, pop on a video or two of hair cuts on kids youtube. Consider buying a story book that explores haircutting! Social stories can also be hugely beneficial in preparing your child. Also think about your language when talking about the hair dressers and hair cuts. Using the word ‘cut’ itself may invoke fear in your child so maybe use ‘trim’ instead. All of this will help to reduce fear and anxiety.

On the day of your child’s appointment try to keep them calm and regulated. Before you leave the house, deep pressure may help or a warm drink. Bring your own cape or towel if you feel your child would benefit from this. Also consider the clothing your child is wearing- a zip down or button down top is often the best option as it is easy to remove instead of taking it off over the head and lots of small hairs falling onto your child’s skin. Use a simple visual schedule for the duration of the appointment so that your child is prepared and knows what is coming next. Have your child sit in front of a mirror or give him/her a handheld mirror to hold so that they can see the hairdresser and what is happening. A weighted snake or lap pad on your child’s knee can be calming and grounding. I also often suggest bringing one or two small fidgets with you to the appointment as distraction can often help- spinning suckers stuck to a handheld mirror can be very effective! Your child might also respond well to you standing with them and talking to them or giving them a hand massage during their appointment. It may also help to give your child a head massage prior to starting any cutting to help them feel calm and regulated. A visual timer may also be an option so your child can see clearly how long is left.

If your child hates having their hair washed ask the hairdresser for a dry cut or use a spray bottle to dampen the hair if your child is happy to do so. Consider options for cutting- for some children a scissor cut is the best option as they may hate the sound of a buzzer but for others a buzzer cut is quicker and less stressful.

To conclude, it takes some planning and can involve quite a lot of preparation but it will be worth it to alleviate the stress, anxiety and overwhelm that can be caused from haircutting. I am most definitely NOT an advocate of pinning your child down and restraining them for a haircut. This will only succeed in adding trauma to an already very stressful and scary experience for the child. If your child refuses or resists then that is ok, go home and try again another day. Remember small steps…walking in through the door of the hairdressers may be enough for day one!

I hope you have found this blogpost useful. If you have any questions please do get in touch via email or our social media channels! A full range of fidgets and weighted items are available on our website which you may find useful to support your child in these challenging situations!

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