The Hair Cutting Experience and Strategies to Help Your Kids Survive

By Hina Mahmood, M.OT – Registered Occupational Therapist

As an occupational therapist one of my main priorities is to support and collaborate with parents so they can help their children more fully participate in daily living activities. A common issue often discussed with parents is the difficulties with hair brushing and hair cuts. For so many us, brushing our hair or getting a hair cut is routine and can be an uneventful and often relaxing experience, but for many individuals with Down Syndrome it can be a source of anxiety and fear.

The reason for this anxiety and fear centres around a sensory sensitivity to touch. The feeling of the cape, hair dresser’s fingers, comb/brush, scissors, and lightly buzzing clippers can be an overwhelming sensory experience. What makes it more difficult is that most of these things occur behind the child’s head where they can’t be seen and can come upon them rather unexpectedly. This type of sensory overload can cause sensory-sensitive kids to go into “fight or flight” mode causing an increase in heart rate, sweaty palms and a tendency to go into defense mode which may involve screaming, hitting, kicking, or running away.

Noise can also play a role in making haircuts a scary experience for sensory-sensitive kids. Our auditory system alerts us to potential dangers before we can even see them or touch them, it is a prime candidate for making haircuts extremely challenging for kids who are already sensitive to noise (especially in a new environment).

Here are some strategies and tips that can help make the hair cutting process less stressful for everyone:

Before the Haircut:

Role play haircuts with your child. Much like pretending to give a medical checkup with a toy stethoscope, you can give pretend haircuts to each other or even with stuffed animals. You can use your hands or even salad tongs as pretend scissors.

Be intentional about the words you use. The word “cut” may cause unnecessary fear leading up to the big day. Or it may cause confusion — we generally warn kids about how scissors are dangerous, so they may easily make that connection of danger when going for hair cuts. Consider using other phrases such as going to “get a trim” or “get handsome / pretty hair”.

Use social stories to help your child become more familiar with what will occur during a haircut.

Read books about getting haircuts.

Have your child watch videos of kids getting their hair cut (such as a friend, sibling, or even videos on YouTube). This can help take out some of the mystery and fear and they can re-watch as many times as they need.Look into specially designed hair clipping products, such as The Calming Clipper.

Bring your child with you to observe you or a family member getting their hair cut.

Visit the hair salon a couple of times so your child can feel more at ease. If you know of a child-friendly salon in your area, check it out for yourself to see what you and your child think about it.

See if your child can meet the hairdresser prior to the haircut if possible. It’s so helpful for the hairdresser to have a basic understanding of your child’s sensory sensitivities!

Try to schedule the haircut appointment at a time of day your child is most happy and calm, and/or when the hair salon is least busy.

If your child has a specific sensory diet their OT has recommended to help with calming (such as a deep pressure brushing program or certain types of heavy work), be sure to complete that prior to the haircut. We want to do everything we can to help place him or her in an optimal state of arousal prior to this experience.

Use visuals or a visual schedule if needed so your child can see what will be occurring before, during, and after the hair cut.

For boys, consider whether a buzz cut will be easier than one that involves sharp and snippy scissors.

For girls, simpler is better. Consider whether there is a certain basic hairstyle or haircut that will less stressful for your child.

During the Haircut:

Bring your own haircutting cape if needed. You can use a familiar towel from home and then secure it with a safety pin, clothespin, or chip clip.

Have your child wear a button-up or zip-up top if possible (with a shirt underneath), so it can be removed as soon as the haircut is over. Those tiny hair remnants can be very uncomfortable for a sensory-sensitive kid.

Bring your child’s weighted blanket, lap pad, or shoulder pad for additional calming sensory input. It can be worn in the minutes leading up to as well as during the haircut.

Allow your child to sit in your lap if needed. It’s up to the hairdresser, but if the child is sitting in your lap and is facing you, it will give the hairdresser better access to the back of their head.

You or the hairdresser can provide deep pressure to the scalp and neck prior to the hair cut, which can help “calm down” the sensitivity response on the skin. Examples could include a scalp/neck massage or even use of a vibrating hairbrush.

Help your child engage in their “calming sequence” if they have one, prior to the clippers actually touching their head. This may involve deep breathing, hand squeezes, playing with a fidget item, or repeating a calming phrase.

Use visuals during the haircut visit. If you know the basic sequence that will be performed, you can have that available, so your child knows where they are at in the sequence and what steps still need to be completed before it’s finished.

If the noise of the scissors or clippers bothers your child, find a way to block out or muffle the noise. You can try using wax earplugs or earbuds with calming music. If your child is comfortable with it, you can also cover their ears for them with some nice deep pressure as part of it.

Have your child bring one or a few preferred items into the haircutting chair, such as a handheld toy, book, or video.

Bring a snack that will help keep your child still such as a fruit pouch, cup with a no-spill straw, Goldfish crackers, etc. You could even try to provide enough snack in order to last the whole haircut. Coordinate with the hairdresser so they know that when the snack or drink is gone, the haircut is over.

If you know or can plan how long the haircut will take, use a visual timer to help your child understand how long the haircut will last. You can also use a music playlist or video of a certain duration so once the video or playlist is done, the haircut is done.

After the Haircut:

Build consistency into the haircutting routine by visiting the same salon each time (and same stylist if possible). This will help build a greater level of predictability and familiarity.

Provide a tangible reward or fun/preferred activity directly after the hair cut. This could be something edible or maybe a short trip to a special place (e.g., frozen yogurt, favourite park or playground)

Brushing Tips: You can use some of the same strategies listed above for hair brushing (role play, social stories, and visuals). Some other strategies can include:

• If your child is sensitive to touch, use a brush with a large head.

• When brushing, use firm strokes.

• Brush in front of the mirror so that your child can predict when the brush is coming.

• Have your child brush his/her own hair.

• Use massage to the scalp prior to hair brushing.

• Use a conditioner to detangle as much as possible.

• With tangles start at the bottom of the hair, holding just above the tangle and then work up to the root.

• Cut hair short

• Use a Tangle Teezer brushFor additional strategies or resources contact your Occupational Therapist.Reference: