Written by: Sandra Ellis, Student Occupational Therapist, McMaster University
Like nail clipping, haircuts can also be a challenging task for a child with special needs, especially if they have sensory challenges. For many kids, haircuts cause pain or discomfort, anxiety or sensory overload. If a trip to the hairdresser has ever turned into a meltdown or you find yourself avoiding it all together, here are some suggestions that might help make the process a little easier for you and your loved one.
- Try to plan the haircut for a time when the shop is less busy i.e. early in the morning or at the very end of the day to avoid sensory overload from a busy salon. Some hairdressers may be able to make exceptions (i.e. cutting your child’s hair after hours) if they know about your child’s challenges and if they are provided adequate notice.
- Wash your child’s hair at home – This can help avoid too much stimulation around the head, especially the vestibular impact of having to tilt their head backward for a wash at the salon. You can also control what shampoos are used (i.e. unscented, non-foaming).
- Try a different cutting tool – For boys, vibrating/buzzing electric razors may be preferable to the sensory impact of scissors (due less sudden movements, less noise), or vice versa. It may take a few trials, but you can try out different tools at home and see what works best for your child. If vibrating tools are preferable, you can prepare your child at home by giving them vibrating or buzzing toys to play with to help them get used to the sensation.
- Try giving your child headphones to listen to music or earplugs – the sound of the hair clippers or scissors may distress a child with auditory sensitivity. Listening to their favourite song can block out distressing sounds and help them stay calm.
- Cover their neck and skin with towel or cloth to avoid loose hair falling onto their body – this can be extremely uncomfortable for a child with tactile sensitivity. Using talcum powder on the neck before a haircut may help as it allows you to blow the loose hair off more easily (with a cool blow dryer) and it doesn’t itch!
- Bring a fresh shirt for after the haircut – this way, your child doesn’t have to deal with little loose hairs that hide themselves inside clothing.
- Increase exposure – Have your child visit the hairdresser and sit on your lap while you get your haircut, watch their siblings get their hair cut, or give a haircut to their bear or doll even when they are not getting their own hair cut. This way, they can generalize the experience and understand that it is a routine activity that everyone does.
- Talk through the process with your child (visual aids can be helpful as well) – explain what is happening and what the child can expect i.e. type of noises they might hear or sensations they might feel throughout the haircut experience. This may eliminate the extra stress of not knowing what to expect.
- Use friendly language – instead of “haircut,” talk about getting a “trim,” “tidying up” their hair, or getting their hair “styled.”
Finally, it is important to try and make haircuts a fun experience – offer your child something special after a haircut like a special toy or doing an activity they really love. This way, even if the haircut experience isn’t enjoyable, they can associate it with something they really like and will be more likely to do it again in the future.
All kids are different and it may take a few tries to figure out what tricks work best with your child. An Occupational Therapist can help to identify specific challenges your child is facing in their daily life and can help provide you and your child with strategies to reduce the impact of sensory issues or anxiety on this and other areas of your child’s life.