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When my son was about 2 1/2, some well meaning soul, in fact, a great aunt who I hadn’t seen in at least a decade, looked at my beautiful boy with blond curly ringlets and exclaimed, “what a beautiful little girl!” UGH…it was time. It was time for a haircut. I dreaded this day for a long time, but I knew the day had arrived. And, I’m sure you’d love for me to lament about how easy it was and what a memorable first haircut we had. Sorry to burst your idealist parenting bubble, but it was an absolute nightmare! And…it didn’t get better….for a very, very long time.
To add salt to the wound, my child had this fabulous ability to grow hair. They say that boys get their hair genes from the mother’s father. Wouldn’t ya know it, my dad died with a full head of thick, gorgeous, silver locks. This means Jack needed a haircut just about every 3-4 weeks. Every 3-4 weeks, the nightmare would have to be relived. Let me put that in perspective. 52 weeks in a year…that means approximately 17 haircuts a year. He’s 20…that’s over 300 haircuts. 300 haircuts! (This may explain my early onset of gray hair.)
Now, if you don’t have a child with sensory defensiveness, you may think the word nightmare is an exaggeration. IT IS NOT! My dad, who pretty much thought my son could do no wrong, called me out and said he didn’t believe it could possibly be that hard to cut a 3 year old’s hair. I, or Jack, showed him. My dad tried and was so ferklempt after his attempt that he immediately set out to find the quietest razor made. It was the only way he knew how to help. (Turns out it was a razor designed for horses…I did not care.)
(Before we go further, please take note. This post is going to target males and using an electric razor as the tool. If you have a female child, strategies are the same, tools are different. In either case, always exercise caution when holding you child and also when using sharp objects. Holding a child too tight could restrict breathing. Scissors are dangerous with our kids for obvious reasons. Please, please be careful. This isn’t an easy task and frustration can sometimes distract us from paying attention to other things.)
Sensory defensiveness and sensory seeking are two very different things. One avoids sensory stimulation and one seeks sensory stimulation. Some, in fact many, kids are both seekers and avoiders. And if you haven’t already realized it, our kids are persistent and when a true NEED is not being met, they will do whatever they NEED to do to feel better.
Haircuts, shaving, showering, bathing, brushing teeth and washing hands/face, all of it can be a sensory nightmare for many kids and adults. If I had a girl, we’d be full on hippie mode because I could hide her legs with pants! But grooming the hair on his head was not an option. I just knew my son was gonna grow up to look like Jesus because at 2 years old, a haircut was the most dreaded event in my world.
What did it look like, you ask? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please count your blessings. Right now, I mean it, just start counting. And while you’re counting, I want you to imagine that you walked up on a rabid dog. That rabid dog is drooling, fighting and yelping. He’s spinning and kicking up dirt. He appears to be conjuring up some evil spirits. Then you look over to see a terrified raccoon with an electric razor trying to cut said rabid dog’s hair. You are that raccoon.
For 18 years, I was that raccoon trying to cut the hair of this out of control little human. People think I exaggerate when I talk about how awful it was…he was just a little boy for crying out loud. Let me tell you, when a person is cornered and their body is having a physical reaction to something, fight or flight kicks in and adrenaline pumps. I’ve heard people with autism say that sometimes sounds and touches, even gentle, can actually cause physical pain. I believe that’s what my son was experiencing. His response to a haircut was so fierce that I was surprised the neighbors didn’t call 9-1-1. He screamed, he hit, he kicked, he squirmed, he cried…it was so draining…for us, I mean he never showed any signs of slowing down. I didn’t even care what the haircut looked like, I just needed it to be done and acceptable. I wasn’t looking for him to become a GQ model, just wanted him to look groomed and presentable.
So, why? Why is this such an awful experience?
Think about a haircut and the senses involved…touch, sound, sight, and even smell. A haircut is an intense experience for someone who is sensory defensive.
Touch. Not only is the razor shaving his hair, but another person also had to hold him still. So many hands on him. So many hands touching him and preventing him from running away. Objects touching his head.
Sound. My son loves Harley Davidson motorcycles. The louder they are, the better. However, a lawnmower, the bathroom fan or the sound of the razor causes him to lose his mind. For some kids loud sounds are a trigger, for some it’s the pitch or vibration of the sound.
Sight. Here you are with a shiny new object. He can see it. It causes him pain. You are close and in his bubble. Visually, this is not a pleasing experience.
Smell. Perfume, the smell of the oil used on a razor, the smell of hair that may fall near his face. A heightened sense of smell can also add to the sensory experience.
I gave up taking my son to the salon after the second or third time. It was just too traumatic for everyone involved. So, I took on the task at home…razor in hand. It took 3 people to complete a haircut, at 3 years old. One person held him, one person held his feet and the other person was the razor wizard.
Although it was tough at 3 years old, imagine what it was like as he got older, bigger and stronger and his sensory defensiveness did not decrease. It got tougher and tougher, until…one day, it finally got better.
If you have a little one, I bet you’re thinking it will never get better. You’re probably thinking that the Jesus look may just be in your future. Don’t give up. I’m gonna share 6 tips that will NOT make this better over night. Sorry. It doesn’t work that way with sensory issues. But, over time, little by little, you will see improvements.
So, here we go…
- Incremental haircut. This is hard because you don’t want your kid walking around with half of a head shaved. I know. It’s hard. But, small periods of discomfort may be easier to handle than longer periods. (And, folks, even if he has to go school with half a head shaved, your teacher will understand!) So, maybe you start on Friday, right after school. Do 4 swipes with the razor and stop. (Tip: It helps if you do this often and use the largest increment on the razor because then the haircut isn’t as noticeable.) Next morning, do the same. Then again in the afternoon. Then again in the evening. Then again on Sunday. You get the point. Quick. No nonsense. Repetitive. Over and over. Long stretches of unwanted sensory overload can end in a full on meltdown and make the child hate the task even more. Small increments may be more tolerable.
- Exposure. I’m a huge proponent of exposure therapy. Turn the razor on during times when haircuts are not happening. Turn the razor on when his favorite TV show is on or when he is doing something he enjoys. Leave it on for a few minutes, turn it off, do it again later. Let him watch other people get a haircut. If it’s touch that is causing the problem, touch his head…all the time. Maybe you rub his hair while he watches TV or as he falls asleep. This can help to decrease the fierce response to the touch. The point is to desensitize him to the stressor.
- Distraction. (Some call this bribery, I’m good with that too.) What does your child or adult like? Food? Television? Music? Whatever it is, use it. I knew a mom who had a cordless razor and took her child to a busy street, sat on a bench and cut her child’s hair. He loved watching traffic. This was enough of a distraction that she could get the job done as painlessly as possible. Everyone else looked at her like she was off her rocker, all except me…I just gave her that knowing nod and said good for you, mama! Do what you need to do. Is it one swipe for one fruit snack? Is it one swipe with the razor for one potato chip? For my son, the magic ticket was counting. We do “count to 10” swipes. I say, “here we go…10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1” and I get in as many swipes with the razor as possible in that countdown. Then we did it again. He enjoys counting. It worked for me. Maybe for your special person you keep a specific “haircut snack” that is enticing. Maybe you reserve a special television show for haircut times. Maybe your child’s favorite person is the one doing the haircut. The point is to offer something so strong and reinforcing that it distracts your person from what is really happening.
- Perseverance. I have talked to moms and dads who just want to quit. I have known parents who have physically restrained their child just to cut their hair (or give them a shower, brush their teeth or even comb their hair). Don’t give up. I promise you that it will get better. Be gentle with yourself and understand that this is tough…on both of you. Try to put yourself in the position of the child/adult. Imagine how painful this may be for them. Be patient. Be understanding. Be diligent. Be persistent. Don’t stop trying. Your persistence will pay off, eventually.
- Research. There are products that offer options. Scissors with safety guards. Razors designed for skidding animals that are super quiet. Make sure the razor is cared for properly so when you swipe the razor, it’s sharp enough to make clean cut so you don’t have to go over it again and again.
- Talk to your child. I don’t care if your child responds. I don’t care if your child is non-verbal. I don’t care if it seems like your child understands or not. Talk to them. Tell them what is happening. Tell them step by step what you are doing. Tell them you know it hurts and you are sorry. Tell them how long it will last, maybe even set a timer. Tell them that haircuts (or showers or brushing their teeth) is not an option. Use strategies, like first/then…first haircut, then fruit snack. Remember that your child is anxious and may not be rational. I believe our kids understand so much more than we give them credit for and even if you aren’t sure, give them the benefit of the doubt.
Haircuts are just one of the self care tasks we may need to complete. These strategies can help you with many of the care items on your list. Showers were another nightmare in my home. Jack hated warm water. He had to be bathed in almost cold water or he would scream to the high heavens. It hurt me to put my infant in water that was cool, almost cold. But, that was the only time he didn’t cry. Now, he hates cold water, but the shower appears to cause him so much discomfort. The water pelting on his skin, even on the gentle setting, causes him to flinch. These are things we can’t just NOT do, though. We have to persevere. We have to keep trying. Hygiene is important. It’s a life skill. It could make the difference between your child getting a job or not. Like I tell my son, “no one likes a smelly 20 year old!”.
Although it may seem difficult and dark at times, if you stay persistent and follow these suggestions, you will, more often than not, see improvement. Be consistent so your child knows what to expect. Take care of yourself, emotionally. Support your child with patience. Seek support from others to help you out. This is not easy!
Oh and you might be wondering how my son does now. Well, he’s 20 and he now will sit in the kitchen while I cut his hair. No one has to hold him. He no longer screams. Hallelujah!!! He will occasionally swat at me, but there is no hitting, biting or kicking. AND, remember when I talked about pitches? He actually LOVES his facial razor. Go figure! It sounds different than the razor we use on his head. My son sports a crew cut that is touched up every 4 weeks now. He doesn’t love it, but he tolerates it and I’m counting this as a major win in our world!
Best of luck, mamas and papas!