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10 Tips for Making Haircuts Easier for Kids with Sensory Processing Issues

10 Tips for Making Haircuts Easier for Kids with Sensory Processing Issues


Published: Jun. 18, 2024Updated: Jun. 27, 2024

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Many kids have sensory issues around getting their haircut — the feel of another person touching their hair and skin, the noise of clippers or scissors, the sensation of cut hair falling, the strong smells of hair products — which can lead to behaviors while trying to resist or escape. Plus, trying to sit still is difficult for many children. Parents, kids, and barbers/hairdressers can experience trauma from past haircut attempts, especially when they only get half a haircut!

Here are some ideas to help your child’s haircut go more smoothly from now on!

Tips for Haircut

Find a barber with a great attitude.

Many people who cut kids’ hair have experience with wiggly clients, so finding a barber who specializes in kids’ haircuts is a great place to start. You may even be able to find a hairdresser who has experience with clients who have extra support needs. Ask for recommendations from local friends and fellow parents (like those in our Facebook group!) to help you find someone friendly and flexible.

When you call a recommended hairdresser on your list, talk to them about what support needs your child has and ask if they can accommodate.

Here are some example questions to ask (from parent Kathy McClelland):

  • Are you comfortable with lots of movement, taking breaks, and even willing to sit in a different chair or on the ground?
  • Will you make accommodations as necessary, such as cutting dry hair or using scissors instead of clippers due to the sound and vibrations?
  • Can you explain each step of the haircut before you begin so my child knows what to expect?
  • My child doesn’t like loud noises, so can you speak in a calm, low voice?
  • My child is easily scared, so can you avoid coming up from behind?
  • My child takes a little longer to process questions, so can you keep your directions simple and give them a minute to respond?
  • I want to wash my child’s hair at home before we come in so they don’t have unfamiliar-smelling products in their hair. Are you okay with this?
  • Can I bring my child in for a pre-appointment visit? (see tip #4)

Maybe the most flexible barber for your child is YOU! If you cut your child’s hair, the following tips can still help home haircuts accommodate your child’s sensory needs.

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Consider the timing of the appointment.

What’s a good time of day for your child to do a non-preferred task like a haircut? Would they do better when the salon is less busy? Some salons even have quieter hours set aside for clients with sensory processing issues. Keep in mind that you may want to plan extra transition time around the appointment.

Many parents suggest that you plan regular visits to the barber so that haircuts become routine. It’s less of a big deal when a haircut happens predictably every two months, for example, instead of getting a drastic cut in six months.

Prime your child with Social Stories and/or video modeling.

Before the appointment, build some familiarity. Occupational Therapist Katie Krcal says parents can start by talking about haircuts days or even weeks before you plan to take them. This can involve watching videos about haircuts, watching a caregiver’s haircut, and generally talking about what you do, what the stylist does and how it feels. This way, the child knows what to expect and how things will happen before it is happening to them.

Social Stories can help kids understand the context around an event and know what to expect, making unfamiliar tasks easier to try. Here are some videos we found that walk kids through why they might need a haircut and what will happen at the appointment:

And Next Comes L has a list of more videos and printouts here that you can download for free. If you want to create a custom Social Story for your child’s specific needs, be sure to check out our upcoming article about what makes an effective Social Story and how to get started.

Video modeling is another resource you can use to prepare your child for a haircut. Similar to Social Stories, which narrate what will happen, video modeling directly shows your child the skill they’ll be practicing, usually by having a peer demonstrate. It may even be filmed from their perspective. Check out the videos Let’s Get a Haircut for Boys and Let’s Get a Haircut for Girls for examples.

The goal of video modeling is to help kids learn the steps of new activities and be able to practice them more confidently and independently. Parent Eileen Lamb says she broke down the haircut process into steps that she practiced with her child one at a time until her child was comfortable to move on to the next step.

Ask for a tour of the salon during a pre-appointment visit.

Have a “dress rehearsal” before the appointment. Krcal says, “Some kid-friendly hair salons will allow a child to visit the salon before they get their haircut. This can be as involved as a stylist-led tour, or simply having the caregivers bring them in to observe.” Touring the salon ahead of time lets your child see the tools, get used to the environment, and meet the hair stylist so they’re not a stranger. You might want to ask if it’s possible to watch another child get their haircut — or arrange for your child to watch a sibling’s haircut — explore the seats, sink, and talk your child through what is happening around them. If your local salon doesn’t advertise this on the website, Krcal advises parents to give them a call and ask! They are typically accommodating.

Put the pre-visit and the appointment itself on your child’s visual calendar so they can see them coming up and not be surprised. You know your child best, but you probably don’t want to blind-side your child and heighten the fear surrounding getting their haircut.

Practice for the appointment with pretend play.

Many kids have difficulty tolerating tactile sensations, such as others touching their heads. Krcal tells us that to get through this, parents can help their children build a positive relationship with touch through play. This can include games and songs such as “head, shoulders, knees and toes,” Simon Says, dressing up with hats or headbands, dance parties, and giving more kisses and gentle touches to your child’s head. The most important thing is that we never force unwanted sensory input to a child.

Playing hairdresser can help your child get used to having someone touching their hair with hands, combs, and tools. You can recruit a toy to have their hair done, or you can take turns with your child running the barber shop. Practice wearing an apron or cape, and tickle your child’s neck with a makeup brush to simulate the tickle of falling hair.

If you suspect the stylist will use clippers as part of your child’s haircut, “Start getting them used to the sound and feeling,” Krcal says. “I like to recommend vibrating teethers like this one. Play a silly game of copycat, where you touch the teether to your arm, and then see if they will copy you. Slowly move towards your head and see if they will tolerate it on theirs as well! Remember, do not force any input upon their body. Let them lead.”

Decide on a reward for a successful haircut.

Together with your child, pick a reward to enjoy after the appointment. An activity like going to a favorite playground can be great for releasing energy caused by trying to sit still for the haircut.

We recommend planning a social activity that you and your child do together. Pediatric Psychologist Dr. David Stein says, “Time and social interaction is the best because number one, it's the most powerful reinforcer… Stickers or bracelets, they lose their appeal, right? How many times can you get a new junky bracelet that's going to turn your arm green? Food and other things like that are not as good of a motivator. But attention from another human being that you love never really gets old. So yes, I prefer to do social rewards.”

Pack comfort items.

Provide entertainment and distraction during the haircut, like a toy, a fidget, or a silly game with you. If wearing the cape prevents your child from holding an object, maybe you hold up a video or provide wireless headphones to listen to music.

You may want to pack a weighted blanket or compression vest if your child is soothed by that sensory input. You can also bring a towel from home to put around your child’s neck, so the smell and feel is familiar rather than the salon’s towels. This will help them regulate their emotions, and stay distracted during the haircut.

Allow your child to say “no.”

Coercion is likely to result in more trauma and fear. It’s also not helpful to be dismissive and say it won’t hurt, or that it’s “just a haircut.” What can help with anxiety is flexibility and communication.

Let them practice having a choice, such as the style of the cut or color of hairbrush. Natalia shares, “In the days/week prior to my daughter's appointment, I will compile a collection of cool hairstyle options I feel she would like. We discuss her options and she picks which cut she'd like. This helps ease any potential anxiety during the consultation at the salon. She shows her stylist the pic of the cut she wants so they can just get to it! I love watching the excitement, pride and confidence wash over her adorable face as she knows the cut was her decision!” Explain to your child that they have the right to consent. Giving their consent allows children to feel a sense of readiness and control.

During the haircut, you can also have the hairdresser talk them through all of the steps and even use a countdown for the amount of time or snips with the scissors. Krcal tells us, “Let the child lead and try not to ‘muscle through it.’ If your child is crying, ducking, or pushing the stylist away, give them a break. Let them know that we have ‘X,Y,Z’ more to do, then co-regulate with them. Get them back to the task with a specific end point.”

Let them practice having a choice, such as the style of the cut or color of hairbrush. Explain to your child that they have the right to consent. Giving their consent allows children to feel a sense of readiness and control. This process will take time, and it might mean a few failed appointments. You can explain to your child that their body belongs to them and they have the option to say no. When your child has opportunities to practice consent when the stakes are low, like a haircut, it can help them be a powerful lesson in personal safety and boundaries to help protect them throughout their life.

Debrief after the appointment.

Decompress after the appointment. Krcal says, “Once they are through the haircut, allow them some time to decompress in a calm environment. That could look like heading home and putting on a movie, or snuggling up with a favorite story. Try not to go right to the next errand or activity.”

Talk with your child about the experience when you get home. What was easy about getting a haircut? What was hard?

Eileen recommends, “Consider having them record a video for their future self after a successful haircut. Show them the video before each haircut to remind them of their previous achievements and reassure them that it won’t be as challenging as expected. I have a video of [my son] saying, ‘I just had a haircut and it wasn’t so bad after all.’ I show it to him before each haircut to remind him that he’s done it before and it’s never as bad as he expects it.”

Kathy says, “Take before and after pictures so your child can see the difference the haircut made and be reminded of it the next time they need to go in for a trim.”

Be patient with the process.

When bringing your child in for a haircut is a major struggle, it’s okay to take a break. It’s not the end of the world if their hair is a bit long. If your child is not ready now, you can try again later. Occupational therapist Kelli Smith has this advice for working with your child on sensory issues:

As you work toward less stressful haircuts, remember to set realistic goals and celebrate small achievements. As with the IEP process, remind yourself of your child’s strengths and work on building new skills by leaning on skills they are already good at.

We hope you find these tips helpful! Do you have your own experiences and advice you’d like to share with other families raising kids with sensory processing issues? Join the discussion in our private Facebook group for parents!

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Contents


Overview

Find a barber with a great attitude.

Consider the timing of the appointment.

Prime your child with Social Stories and/or video modeling.

Ask for a tour of the salon during a pre-appointment visit.

Practice for the appointment with pretend play.

Decide on a reward for a successful haircut.

Pack comfort items.

Allow your child to say “no.”

Debrief after the appointment.

Be patient with the process.

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Author

Brittany OlsonUndivided Content Editor

Reviewed by:

  • Lindsay Crain, Undivided Head of Content & Community
  • Adelina Sarkisyan, Undivided Writer and Editor
  • Karen Ford Cull, Content Specialist and Writer/Education Advocate

Contributors:


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